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August 22, 2007

Edward Hopper: Poet of the ordinary

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," 1942, oil on canvas, depicts a voyeuristic portrayal of ambiguous urban alienation and impersonalization as three customers and a soda jerk spend time together in the harsh glare of artificial light in the middle of the night.

The voyeuristic stark world of American Scene realist artist Edward Hopper was recently displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

While the exhibit ranges extensively from Mr. Hopper's early prints, watercolor landscapes and scene paintings, to his iconographic oil paintings, the exhibition focused on a 25-year period of peak artistic expression from 1923 to about 1948.

The show distributed about 100 pieces of art, in chronological order across eight gallery-rooms, including 12 prints, 34 watercolors, 48 oil paintings, and two of his "ledger" notebooks containing his sketches and notes.

Art from 39 public and 13 private collections has been brought together to give visitors the opportunity to listen carefully for the "poetry" of Mr. Hopper's otherwise famously spare, mute landscapes, blunt geometrics and austere interiors, in which the beauty is in the common place, the unexpected, and the unexceptional.

The Tate modern art gallery in London, once helped explain Mr. Hopper's genius and "enduring popularity" as stemming from his depiction of everyday scenes in simple, stark terms. He studies small events or places in a way that is timeless. Each piece becomes "a profound statement about the human condition."

Mr. Hopper attempted, by way of his art, to examine the truth about ordinary people and their simple lives. He explores the affect of light and shadow, breaking through the scene, using them to further separate the figures from their world and to better illuminate the loneliness of their existence, the Tate said.

The artist was born in Nyack, NY, on July 22, 1882. In 1913, he took an apartment on Washington Square in New York City's Greenwich Village, where he lived just as sparingly as his paintings.

He lived in the same apartment until his death at the age of 84, on May 15, 1967. His artist wife Josephine Nivison Hopper bequeathed his work to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City upon her death 10 months later.

This show, made possible by a grant from Booz Allen Hamilton, has been put together by the collaborative efforts of three museums. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, debuted the show May 6, where it was exhibited through August 19, to record crowds. The National Gallery of Art, Washington will display the show from September 16 through next January 2; and The Art Institute of Chicago from February 16 through May 11, 2008.

On a recent trip to Boston, I jumped at the opportunity to see the genius of Mr. Hopper, considered by many art historians to be one of the most influential - if not one of the most popular - artists of the 20th century.

Delightfully, this exhibit includes much of his often overlooked earlier works, such as his "New York Corner," one of his earliest oil paintings from 1913; "Two Trawlers," a watercolor from 1923-34; "Gloucester Mansion," 1924; "Box Factory, Gloucester," 1928; and "House of the Fog Horn I" from 1927.

He had considered himself a failure when he first visited Gloucester in 1923. It was there that he met his future wife and life-long artistic companion, an outgoing New York painter, Josephine Nivison. She encouraged him to resume painting watercolors.

It was nice to be able to see the watercolor on exhibition, "The Mansard Roof," painted in Gloucester in 1923, which the Brooklyn Museum purchased for $100 and is considered to be the piece that finally launched his career.

Over the next 25 years, he achieved extensive appreciation for his "American Scene" paintings in which it is interpreted that he expressed the lonely anonymity and social alienation of the post-industrial impersonalized modernism of "progress" in the human condition in an urban environment.

In pieces such as "Chop Suey," 1929 - a favorite for many Hopper aficionados; "Rooms for Tourists," 1945; "Cape Cod Evening," 1939; "Office at Night," 1940; and "Sun in an Empty Room," 1963, one may gain some insight into Mr. Hopper's emphasis on the importance of the inconsequential details of life.

Certainly not to be overlooked are my personal favorites "Automat," 1927, and "New York Movie," 1939. It is these works of art which convey the "psychological tension and heightened feelings of isolation," so celebrated by the artist.

This theme of "tension and isolation" is quite evident in his most famous work from 1942, "Nighthawks." To have the opportunity to see the painting up close allows us to provide our own plot and meaning to a painted storyboard for a "film noir" movie on the late night lonely lives of four mysterious characters.

The Tate restates that one of the many reasons Mr. Hopper remains relevant today is that he has "inspired generations of artists, writers, and filmmakers including David Hockney, Mark Rothko, Alfred Hitchcock, Todd Haynes, and Norman Mailer."

Coinciding with the National Gallery of Art show will be yet another Hopper-inspired work of art - an opera: "Later the Same Evening: an opera inspired by five paintings of Edward Hopper," by renowned composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell.

It will be performed November 15-18 at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, and December 2, 2007 at The National Gallery of Art.

Additionally, the artistic impact of Edward Hopper's work is the subject of a new documentary film that accompanies the exhibition.

It is narrated by actor, writer, and Hopper art collector Steve Martin and produced by the National Gallery of Art. In the Washington area, the documentary will be shown on WETA Channel 26 on Thursday, September 6 at 10:30 P.M., and in the Baltimore area on MPT Channel 67 on Sunday, September 23, at 7:30 P.M.

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