Sidelights: Searching for the Young Edward Hopper
By Juliana RothSeptember 26, 2020
But it also feels a little wrong to dig through another’s journals, textbooks, and photographs, especially someone as decidedly private about his life as Hopper was. Still, his was ultimately a public existence, and his journey feels tied to my own sense of self as an artist. We share a hometown and a fascination with bodies of water. I grew up down the hill from where Hopper lived out his boyhood, across the street from the Hudson River, where local historians and folklorists claim Hopper first set up his easel and put brush to paper.
In every apartment I rented after moving away, I tacked up Hopper’s Hook Mountain, Nyack, from the museum’s Prelude: The Nyack Years, which depicts the view from my childhood street. My laptop background throughout college and graduate school was his Morning Sun. I saw myself in the woman alone in her sparse room, gazing out of a city window. I saw my dreams in her gesture of looking, my simultaneous peace with solitude and longing for a bigger life.
I didn’t know at the time that the woman I was looking at — that most of the women I’d looked at in Hopper’s work — were his wife of 45 years, Jo, a painter herself, who served as his primary model throughout her life. I didn’t know that he often sabotaged her work, outshining her in the shows she negotiated him into, that he was inspired and instructed by her technique, but that the majority of her paintings had been destroyed after her death by the Whitney.
After returning home to live after nearly 10 years away, I remembered how often I thought of the Hudson River during my absence, how I’d walk to the nearest body of water wherever I was, needing a familiar sense of grounding, of inspiration. I saw the Hudson nearly every day of my life growing up. I snuck out onto the docks with my friends to drink stolen vodka from water bottles; we dared each other to jump into the polluted water and swim with the eels. I dragged my kayak across the rocky beach to spend hours floating at the river’s center, feeling my body shift as the tides changed direction. I spent much of my life mythologizing the river’s power. Home takes up a specific space in the body — we know when we’re there and when we’re not.
“The effort here was to save the house, not because it was the Edward Hopper House but because it was an old house and it was secondary that Hopper was involved because at that time [of his death] he was almost a forgotten artist,” Art Gunther, a third-generation local resident and retired editor, columnist, and staff photographer for the original Journal News, told me. Gunther is a longtime volunteer with and advocate for the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center, where Hopper’s childhood archives are housed, and where I now work.
“You can’t understand his art until you understand his life,” Gunther continued. “He said of his paintings, ‘I’m always looking for myself,’ so that’s his whole life. From the time that’s he’s birthed in that room there and the light shines on his face when he’s first born, coming up Second Avenue, wakes up every morning in that light. His whole life is about painting in light, so it is totally intertwined. So, the more you can look at his early life, the more you’ll understand the art.”
Playing with Light
Nyack, where Hopper lived until he moved to Manhattan at nearly 30 years old, was one of the first towns in the region to establish a public school system, starting Liberty Street School in 1859. This is where Hopper and his sister, Marion, completed their elementary education. Later, in 1899, Hopper graduated from Nyack High School. He went through the standard academic lessons and kept dutiful notebooks. The image included here is of a page of notes from Hopper’s anatomy course, from a lesson about the eye — how light and images are interpreted.
Several hundred years before, in the early 1600s, Johannes Kepler observed a camera obscura — a darkened room in which light was introduced to the space through a small hole, causing an inversion of a reflected scene. This led to the theory of the retinal image, that what we observe is inverted and then restored through the act of perception. Kepler’s theories of optical imagery evolved into our current understanding of how the eye works (which Hopper depicts in the sketch), suggesting the possibility of projected images, which led to the development of photography and, later, filmmaking.
Hopper had a lifelong fascination with light (and later with film), which came through even in his commissioned sketches. In Boy and the Moon, which is held by the Whitney, we are offered a scene reminiscent of the bedroom in which Hopper slept for over a quarter of his life. Just across the Hudson River, visible from Hopper’s bedroom window, was the Sleepy Hollow lighthouse. In the illustration, the moonlight is portrayed in a very similar position to where the lighthouse would have been seen by Hopper as a boy, if he were to sit up in the middle of the night and turn to his left (where the painting depicts an opening in the wall). The boy’s arrested gaze is a posture many of Hopper’s later subjects would assume.
Dreamlike, visionary seeing suggests enlightenment and discovery, perhaps even divinity. Hopper was raised in a Christian household, and there are some family Bibles left in the archive, but it’s unclear how important religious practice was to the adult Hopper. We do know that he had a lifelong fascination with how to use light in a painting, and with lighthouses in particular. He spent several summers in Maine, painting along the coast. The invention of photography in the mid-19th century reinforced the importance of light as an artistic tool. Hopper was photographed several times throughout his childhood, and a few of these photos are on display at the museum. His later works reflect a sense of cinematic composition, in particular House by the Railroad, which reportedly inspired Hitchcock’s Psycho. Many directors and photographers continue to cite Hopper as an influence.
Looking at Hopper’s school notes, in particular his drawing of the eye, we can see the precision with which the young Hopper drew. Such a drawing, of course, could be pulled from the notebooks of thousands of students at this exact moment in history. But the fascination of this specific drawing is the glimpse it gives us of a young artist sketching out the structures of light and vision — an artist who would go on to create works that pushed the boundaries of what it was possible to see realistically.
All of this starts with the eye, with perception, with interpretation. The impressions made in childhood, and how they unfold throughout one’s life.
Nicolas Cendo of Musée Cantini in Marseilles facilitated the museum’s Hopper exhibition in 1989, a significant event in the international engagement with Hopper’s work. In his essay for the exhibition catalog, Cendo writes that Hopper’s use of light was a means of showing “the restrained, almost buried, human dimension in which desire, melted down and recast in his paintings, opposes ever more intensely the implacable isolation to which the world condemns it.”
As someone who rather likes to spend time alone, having on many occasions gone to great lengths to find such solitude (backpacking through the mountains of Utah, pitching a tent in my backyard during quarantine), I resist interpreting Hopper’s painted scenes as merely the expressions of a lonely or exiled man, which is often how they’re presented. But it is undeniable that his paintings powerfully portray the experience of isolation. When Hopper was a child, Nyack had a population of 4,000, which today is nearly doubled. His youthful world was thus marked by isolation but also by the rumblings of industrialization, as the town and the surrounding region began to grow.
Hopper eventually rebelled against this provincial isolation. He saw himself as having more cosmopolitan roots, in particular in France, a country to which he was always drawn. He often stressed the fact that his great-grandfather, Reverend Joseph W. Griffiths (who organized the Baptist congregation in Nyack in 1854), “married a French girl […] when he came to America.” This led Hopper to believe in his own purported Frenchness, once remarking that he thought of himself not as a realist but as an impressionist; and indeed, he created some of his brightest, lightest works on a youthful visit to Paris. “The light was different from anything I had ever known,” Hopper said of the experience. “The shadows were luminous — more reflected light. Even under the bridges there was a certain luminosity.” Yves Bonnefoy, a French art curator, described Hopper’s gaze as having been “cleansed of its shadows” by the time he spent in Europe.
Upon returning from France, Hopper moved from Nyack to Greenwich Village. He left behind his older sister Marion, who had also exhibited an interest in the arts at a young age, but who now devoted her life to taking care of both the house and their mother. A similar dynamic emerged with Hopper’s wife, Jo, who wrote in her diary, “Of course if there can be room for only one of us, it must undoubtedly be he. I can be glad and grateful for that.” Early in her career, Jo had shown her work alongside Picasso and Man Ray. By the end, it was rarely seen.
Cendo describes how often in Hopper’s work barriers seem to disappear and the viewer is welcomed into silence and into an obscure underlying desire. The desire in Hopper’s work, Cendo says, is “absolute” and “eternally remote,” a means to conceal an “immense wound.” Painting may have been a way for the young Hopper to form an active connection to the world, to take control over his life. This sketch the young Hopper made of a sparrow’s skeleton, likely copied from an anatomy textbook or off the school blackboard, shows the bird poised for flight, but also arrested, frozen — because of course it is merely bones, only a sketch.
Tables for Ladies
A March 5, 1928, letter to Hopper’s sister Marion from her friend Ethel reads, “I have just begun to use my typewriter again so here goes a note to you. Perhaps when that old furnace of yours needs no more of your attention you can find time to send me a note.” Ethel lived in Manhattan, a few blocks away from Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had bought 15 of Hopper’s etchings three years previously.
Three years later, the museum would purchase Table for Ladies. The title referred to a new policy advertised by restaurants in the ’20s and ’30s: young women (that is, white women) would be allowed to dine together or alone, unchaperoned by men or older female relatives. They would no longer be kicked out, seen as sex workers. The painting depicts women at work: one at the café’s register and another arranging fruit in the window display. I find my eye drawn to the latter: unlike the woman at the register, her eyes are not on her work; instead, she seems to be gazing out at the street. Her inattention to her duties is a brief gesture of rebellion, heightened by the propriety of the couple sitting behind her. The woman makes me think of Jo — who refused to cook but still dutifully logged the details of Hopper’s art sales and took notes on his paintings for him. I think of her delicate watercolors. I think of the protest of her painting flowers.
In 1928, women had had the right to vote for eight years. A few years later, Amelia Earhart became the first female aviator to cross the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Marion Hopper received and penned letters at her childhood home. She was not a woman like Amelia, or even like the waitress in the painting. Certainly, she didn’t live a life like Edward’s or even, for that matter, Jo’s. Who was she?
Reading Marion’s letters and journals, I’m curious what might have been discussed were she and Ethel to find a table for ladies. Marion’s was largely a shuttered life, occupied with the daily hazards of keeping a home and constrained by a precarious income. She was, perhaps, the true lonely one. “Well, she was very quiet, almost a recluse. She stayed in the house,” Win Perry, former president of the Historical Society of the Nyacks and of the Edward Hopper Landmark Preservation Foundation, told me. “I got to meet her once. I went into the house for some reason. Delivering something. And there was a general dark brown atmosphere to the house. Dark drapes over the windows, and trinkets, tchotchkes everywhere on the mantelpiece and old Victorian furniture. So, not many people really knew her, or knew of her.” After Marion died, broken pieces of chairs were found near the basement furnace, as though she’d been burning her furniture to stay warm.
It was difficult to be a Hopper woman. Gail Levin, Hopper historian and specialist, asks us: “Why bother with the work of women artists long consigned to the rubbish heap?” Jo’s body of artwork was destroyed, and Marion’s early inclinations toward art were not met with the same support as her brother’s. And yet, Marion meticulously inventoried her daily life, recorded her judgments, and corresponded with friends who wondered after her. She was not silent. She wrote.
It’s important to consider how Hopper’s race both enabled and constrained his career as an artist. In the first place, his whiteness undeniably licensed his artistic voyeurism. Could Hopper have lurked outside houses at night, peering into the windows of strangers to find inspiration for his domestic scenes, if he were a Black artist? How unpatrolled were the limits of his imagination? To which homes did he give his attention?
During his long life (Hopper died in 1967), he saw both the movement for women’s suffrage and the Women’s Liberation movement, as well as the Civil Rights movement and the beginnings of the protests against the war in Vietnam. These movements were a lively presence in the streets of New York City, Hopper’s lifelong home as an adult, but they are absent from his canvases. Most of Hopper’s human subjects were white, his landscapes of regions like Maine or Cape Cod, dominated by the white imagination. Still, absence is its own form of representation, and examining what was left out of Hopper’s paintings gives us another lens into the loneliness and disconnection his work evokes.
It is rare to find a Black subject in Hopper’s frame. His only painting to depict a Black woman is South Carolina Morning (1955), which positions the woman, alone, in a bold red dress, looking out over a field. Of the painting’s origin, the Whitney’s collection reports that,
[f]rom April 1 to May 11, 1929, Edward Hopper and his wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper, visited Charleston, South Carolina. During their trip to the surrounding countryside, the Hoppers encountered a woman who stood in front of her cabin but retreated indoors when her husband came home.
Yet Hopper need not have traveled so far to find a nonwhite subject. Just a 10-minute walk down the road from his childhood home lived Peter Williamson, the last living person in Rockland County to be born into bondage. “At one time, the Williamsons lived near the Old Stone Meeting House and Peter ran a small grocery and candy store, probably at the same location,” writes Rockland historian Mike Hays. Hopper’s and Williamson’s lifetimes overlapped by four years, and it’s quite possible that Hopper visited his candy store as a toddler.
On the same road as Williamson’s home was the first Baptist congregation in Nyack that had been organized by Edward’s great-grandfather. Edward’s father was a deacon in the church. Around the same time as the church’s founding, two African American churches began in Nyack: the African Methodist Episcopal and the Second Baptist Church. “By the time of the Civil War, churches started to segregate entirely,” Hays told me.
Growing up on the river, Hopper had an obsession with exploring and escaping. Gail Levin, in an interview with the Art Institute of Chicago, describes Hopper as a traveler: “We always see these people in his paintings waiting for something to happen. He’d travel quite a bit around America […] and along the way rather than just painting tourist sites,” he painted “the interior of trains, hotel rooms, hotel lobbies, motel rooms, highways, gas stations.” These images are signposts of movement, of the in-between. But when we think of Hopper’s travel, where are we going and who are we seeing?
In her 1995 biography of Hopper, Gail Levin quotes from Jo’s journal: “I like the reclaimed horse car — or house made out of ex-moving van. Something with a smack of adventure about it.” Yet, Levin writes, “Jo grew discouraged, feeling that Edward showed ‘determined opposition to every breath I draw.’” This conflict “drove and infected their marriage and unequal careers.” In Jo’s words, “If I’m on the point of being very happy, he sees to it that I’m not. If I’m happy ever and not too exhausted, I might want to paint.”
Jo and Hopper met in 1923 at an artist colony in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Jo taught him how to use watercolors. They spent the summer painting, sharing subjects and techniques. At the time, Jo’s work was bold, abstract. Hopper painted one of his first known pictures of Jo during this time, as she sat on the beach deep at work on a watercolor. Upon their return to New York, Jo suggested Hopper’s work for the Brooklyn Museum, and they bought one of his watercolors. He went on to sell many more as Jo stood by, watching, waiting for her own success. When they married, Jo was 41. Only four years prior, women had secured the right to vote.
At our museum, a few of Jo’s watercolors remain, one of which is this self-portrait. Studying it, I think of all her paintings that are now lost and how the woman in the frame will become the subject trapped inside of Hopper’s. There is a lightness in the way she paints herself, a fiercely held femininity. Jo’s colors feel bright yet somewhat worn, almost as though they are disappearing before our eyes, as though she is slipping away.
Juliana Roth is an artist based in the Hudson Valley, where she serves as chief storyteller for the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center.
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