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In Hopper’s World, the Last Shall Be First : Art: He ‘dwells on people who wait, who serve. People whom we don’t notice,’ lecturer says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When asked what he considered his greatest goal as an artist, American painter Edward Hopper had a terse and modest answer: “To paint sunlight on the side of a house.”

Susan C. Larsen, lecturing on Sunday afternoon to a sellout crowd of several dozen listeners at Newport Harbor Art Museum, explained that Hopper’s odd remark actually makes its own kind of sense. By painting such a well-known phenomenon, she said, “he gives us back something of our own life experience.”

Larsen is co-curator (with Deborah Lyons) of “Edward Hopper: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art"--at Newport Harbor through March 17--and adjunct curator of the Whitney’s permanent collection. Her straightforward, pleasantly matter-of-fact talk was entitled “Edward Hopper and His Contemporaries,” but it was mostly about the psychological climate in his works--a reflection, she said, of “the kinds of things most people experience.”

According to Larsen, Hopper was a “deeply serious” person and a diligent student, “not a facile artist but a dogged one.” In his student works, he began probing the subject matter that would feed his well-known paintings--in particular, people (especially women) whose private lives unfold in public places.

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As a young man, Hopper visited Paris. A photograph of him in a cafe from about 1906 shows a rangy fellow in an oppressively neat suit and tie and straw hat. He went to museums and became acquainted with new painting styles, but he was not a part of the scene. “Cubism was being born, but who knew?” said Larsen. “Certainly not Edward Hopper.”

His painting, “Soir Bleu” from 1914--constructed from notes and memories several years after the last of his three trips to the Continent--"tells more about Edward Hopper than about Paris,” she said.

The work has various human types, including a procurer (the man in a cap with a cigarette in his mouth) and his tart (a heavily rouged woman with a regal stance), a clown (borrowed from 18th-Century painter Jean Antoine Watteau, a bohemian type and a military man. Larsen sees the painting--one of Hopper’s first attempts at constructing an allegory dealing with human psychology--as the first step toward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” of 1942, which is not in the exhibit.

Living in New York in the first decades of the 20th Century, Hopper supported himself modestly by doing magazine illustrations, an occupation he found distasteful. (He sold one painting for $250 in 1913, but many years would pass before he sold another.) But his circumstances made him acutely aware of the life of non-privileged New Yorkers.

“Hopper dwells on people who wait, who serve. People whom we don’t notice,” Larsen said. His galaxy of major bit players includes the bored usherette in “New York Movie” and the plump waitress who reaches for a glossy arrangement of fruits in “Tables for Ladies.”

Hopper’s interest in special things that are usually ignored also included the brilliantly lit shop windows on small-town Main Streets--stage sets with only a tiny audience of passersby. In “Drugstore” from 1927, a window decorated with strange colored liquids in glass containers suggest a magical world beneath a prosaic sign advertising prescription drugs and Ex-Lax.

In the teens and ‘20s, the skyline of New York was in flux, absorbing a phalanx of taller, more densely sited buildings. Hopper had “an acute eye for the way light plays over 20th-Century structures,” Larsen said.

But he was also interested in the “inner life” of buildings. The social structure of the city was changing, with an influx of young people from small towns looking for work. He wondered what happens to people’s lives when they uproot themselves or when the infrastructure changes. “Where do they live? Whom do they love? How do they organize their lives?”

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Even the non-urban settings in Hopper’s paintings share the disquiet of a changing world. In “Railroad Crossing” of 1922-23, a stately 19th-Century house stands incongruously alongside a railroad track, which seems likely to have been built after the house. The woman wandering in the yard--an afterthought of Hopper’s, apparently--seems to reflect the prevailing sense of uprootedness and insecurity. “These are things,” Larsen said, “that speak about time.”

So many of Hopper’s paintings show people either truly alone or isolated from another figure. In “Hotel Room,” a newcomer to a city is slumped in her slip on a hotel bed; in “Summer in the City,” a clothed woman sits tensely on the edge of the bed on which a nude man sleeps, oblivious to her.

But, although he is often called the painter of loneliness, Hopper himself said “the loneliness thing” was overdone. Instead, Larsen suggested, the work is “more about a sense of being alone in the universe. It’s more existential than just about being lonely.”

* “Edward Hopper: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art” continues through March 17 at Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Monday. Special admission for this exhibit is $4.50 for adults, $2 for students and seniors with ID, $1 for children 6 to 17. Admission is free on Tuesdays. Information: (714) 759-1122.

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