Edward Hopper is justly recognized as among the greatest of American realist painters. The mind must stretch to such figures as John Singleton Copley and Thomas Eakins to find his peers. But Hopper is so much more familiar than either of them that when his painting “Nighthawks” was re-created in the film “Pennies From Heaven,” most people in the audience recognized it as an old friend.
There can be a down side to such renown. Upon hearing that the Newport Harbor Art Museum has just opened an exhibition of his work, it is too easy to call Hopper’s trademark paintings to mind and assume we know all about him.
Works like “New York Movie” with its pensive usherette slouching in the movie house or the deserted buildings of “Early Sunday Morning” are so ingrained in memory they suggest this is a show we can skip.
That would be unfortunate for a number of reasons. There has not been a serious chance to see Hopper in Southern California in recent memory. This compendium of about 150 paintings, watercolors, drawings and prints comes from the collection of New York’s Whitney Museum, the most complete holding of his works. It was very smartly selected to include almost none of his greatest hits. None of the aforementioned icons are on board. There are a few exceptions as in such late oils as “A Woman in the Sun” and “Second Story Sunlight.” That may disappoint some folks, but it provides even the most jaded connoisseur the chance to get a fresh take on an artist who is so easy to remember we just might forget.
We remember him, of course, as quintessentially American and indivisible from the era around the Great Depression. There is such a haunted sense of loneliness and isolation about the work that you can almost hear a scratchy record of Bing Crosby singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Lest we forget, the exhibition opens with paintings Hopper made in Paris in the first decade of the century, before the Depression was even a sigh in the world’s mind. There are little pictures of the inner courts of Paris buildings and scenes of the quais of the Seine where even the most humble sight has a certain grandiosity.
They prove that any artist who works in Paris becomes a little bit French. There are echoes of the Impressionists in the landscapes, of Vuillard in the intimate interiors, of the Post-Impressionists in a big picture like, “Soir Bleu.” But one would have to be almost willfully unobservant not to notice that this is art made by a Yank in a beret.
“Soir Bleu,” for example, might have been conceived by Picasso when his Blue Period was turning rosy. It depicts a night crowd on the terrace of some bistro. In the center a Pierrot clown sits, disconsolate as usual. Behind him stands an Amazonian painted lady, leering as usual. They are flanked by some loungers and uptown swells, comme il faut.
Toulouse-Lautrec would have recognized it.
But there are telling differences that set this scene apart from a European version of the enticing demimonde. Hopper brings to the whole a sense of illustrative fantasy that smells of Maxfield Parrish. We can understand how such skill brought him unhappy success as an illustrator but more than that it shows, along with the rest, how calculated he was. There is virtually nothing here of the casual esprit of a Bonnard or Marcel Vertes. Hopper is not fooling around. He is a good American who earns his way by hard work and restraint.
At that, however, he can barely check his erotic interest in the smeared lipstick of the painted lady. Even his most academic studies of the nude have a detectable salaciousness. “Summer Interior” shows a young girl collapsed on the bedroom floor. It has the sexual charge of Edvard Munch’s “Puberty.” He muffled that impulse evermore in the large empty spaces around the figure, but there it stayed. It lends his work a sense of things impending.
Even in Gay Paree, Hopper’s work bodied forth a sense of isolation. Even then he painted a little gray study of an empty theater. Technically the two things boil down to one.
For an artist associated with scenes of common life he really had a great sense of theater. He dramatized form by isolating it and that makes the form look lonesome. We can guess until hell freezes over what the combination means psychologically, but its wellsprings clearly lie in matters that were deeply personal to Hopper long before the Great Depression.
Is it in his face? Self-portraits show a head as straightforward as an egg, balding and serene, but with finely chiseled sensuous features. Was Hopper a classic self-censored American sybarite? Could be. Maybe the whole thing is about frustrated romantic longing. The quality turns up in a lot of American artists later, even California artists. Mark Stock is an obvious example, but Richard Diebenkorn is closer to the bone.
Hopper died in 1967 at age 85 so he worked for a quarter-century after the Depression ended. “Woman in the Sun” was painted around 1960. It looks like a ‘30s woman having a nude smoke standing in a shaft of sunlight in her dingbat motel cottage. She looks like a survivor of the dust bowl.
Either Hopper outlived his times and became irrelevant or he represented an American impulse that started before the crash and continued after it. I think he represents the enduring part. People in this country still have trouble with strangled psyches. You can still see the cozy Hopperesque houses of “Second Story Sunlight” even around here. There is something consoling about them.
Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, to March 17 (714) 759-1122) .