Only in America:
Anomie on Parade
Edward Hopper’s “Office at Night” (1940). © Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
The big event of Paris’s fall art season, “Edward Hopper” at the Grand Palais, opened last week. Hopper’s most iconic paintings — notably “Nighthawks” — are all there, and they are so, so familiar that what is really most interesting about this show is not so much seeing dozens of them in person as seeing the evolution of the work of this artist who developed such a unique, original and immediately recognizable style.
In fact, before all the influences he absorbed over the years coalesced into that distinctive style, sometime around 1925, Hopper (1882-1967) was a rather banal painter. Having sold only one painting between 1906 and ’24, he had to work as a magazine illustrator to support himself and his wife Josephine, a job that immersed him in the everyday life and workaday world of the United States and served him well when he set out to develop a self-consciously “American” style of painting.
The show starts out with works by artists who influenced Hopper in his early years – his teacher in New York, Robert Henri – himself influenced by Manet and 17th-century Spanish painting; the brilliant Thomas Eakins, represented by a handsome self-portrait; and
Hopper’s “Night Shadows” (1921). © Philadelphia Museum of ArtGeorge Bellows. A couple of these early works by Hopper – otherwise unremarkable – already show a fascination with solitary figures in empty settings.
Then we find him in Paris, three times in the space of four years (in 1906, ’09 and ’10), absorbing the art of some of his contemporaries: Albert Marquet, who offered a way to move beyond Impressionism with his allusive, light-filled paintings; Walter Sickert, for his theater interiors, a future favorite subject of Hopper’s; and Félix Vallotton, with his Vermeer-influenced paintings in which light pours through open windows onto seated figures in a room. Hopper was already aware of the off-kilter angles of Degas (whose “Le Ballet de ‘Robert le Diable’” provides a fine example). At this time, Hopper himself was painting pretty, unexceptional pictures of the City of Light (compare Marquet’s paintings of streets scenes to Hopper’s, and you will see the difference).
Meanwhile, back in the States, the Ashcan School, led by Hopper’s former teacher, Henri, was breaking with the strictures of the American National Academy and taking gritty real life for its subject. Hopper turned his back on Europe and joined in the fun (perhaps not the right word, but you may be surprised to see a few cheery, sun-drenched paintings by him in this show).
Gradually, Hopper developed the unmistakable style that would forever after be identified with him: that sad, peculiar, only-in-American feeling of too much space, stripped-down architecture, emptiness barely disturbed by stiff people who are either alone (“Hotel Room,” 1931) or seem alone even when they are with others (“Hotel Lobby,” 1943, or “Conference at Night,” 1949), their eyes always veering away from those of their companions.
Hopper may not have been a great painter – look at the black slits that serve for human eyes and the awkward rigidity of his figures, which may owe more to a lack of facility with the paintbrush than to intention – but there is no denying that he hit on something uniquely, hauntingly American and communicated it with a power that has made it iconographic and unforgettable; that feeling of ambiguity and alienation gets inside your head and stays there.
Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais: 3, avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris. Métro: Champs-Elysées Clemenceau. Tel.: 01 44 13 17 17. Open Wednesday-Saturday, 10am-10pm; Sunday-Monday, 10am-8pm. Closed Tuesday and Christmas. Open from 9am to 11pm Jan 29-31, and 24 hours a day Feb. 1-3. Admission: €12. Through February 3, 2013. www.rmn.fr
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