That Strange, Sad Light : ‘Maybe I’m not very human,’ Edward Hopper said. ‘What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house’ : EDWARD HOPPER: An Intimate Biography, <i> By Gail Levin (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 678 pp.)</i>

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<i> Fred Schruers is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone</i>

Lovers of Edward Hopper’s austere, epochal art almost certainly stand to lose a hero in reading Gail Levin’s weighty, frustrating but stalwart biography. It’s weighty for its relative inclusiveness (Hopper was anything but prolific, and virtually every painting he sold is enumerated); frustrating for the reticence of its subject (the painter, who died in 1967, left little record of his thoughts), and stalwart for the amount of digging and cogitating Levin has done to fortify her key asset--the voluminous and generally piquant observations of Hopper’s tormented spouse, Jo.

Levin earns the right to her subtitle, “An Intimate Biography,” for Jo Hopper’s suffering is conveyed in scores of angry, unflinching observations from her letters and journal. “Swatting isn’t as bad as meanness,” she notes after one of their cuffing, scratching, biting set-tos. “. . . His rule of reason always has a quality of tyranny in it.”

Hopper, during the months of brooding interludes between creative spasms, Hopper preferred reading and crossword puzzles to conversation: “Any talk with me sends his eye to the clock. It’s like taking the attention of an expensive specialist.” Jo’s wifely frustration was compounded by her husband’s mockery of her painting.


Hopper’s fellow sacred monster, George Bernard Shaw, said of biographies that “the truth is never fit for publication,” but Levin hasn’t shrunk from the details of a private existence that was in patches both sordid and mean. We become schooled in the couple’s medical maladies as well as in Edward’s abusive and self-centered sexuality. Jo, past 40 and a virgin when she married Edward, was appalled that “the whole thing was entirely for him. . . . I’d not consent to be hurt too much.” Brusque, unheeding and rough, Edward shed his stern Puritanism in episodes that improved only decades later, after she forced a marriage manual upon him.

What surely began as a full-blown critical biography from the art historian who’s created a nine-book shelf of treatises on Edward Hopper half-grudgingly distracts itself (and the reader) with a catalogue of his personality defects. To Hopper’s brutal aloofness and sexual callousness, one can add stinginess, casual cruelty, self-absorption and fang-toothed egotism. It’s no surprise then, to find a usually forgotten clause--”Maybe I’m not very human”--preceding one of Hopper’s much-quoted observations: “What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.”

The statement comes from his depiction of his long years of struggle as an illustrator, doing work he describes as “pot-boiling,” in which his talent was nonetheless evident. “I was always interested in architecture,” he says, “But the editors wanted people waving their arms.” The indomitability of this aesthetic is one of the things we have to admire Hopper for, notably in one of his latest major works, 1963’s “Sun in an Empty Room.” After years of including figures--cryptically staring, lonely or conflicted; people we want to outfit with stories over Hopper’s unfailing, firmly stated objections--he was back down to essentials, painting what Levin calls “the sunlight he associated with life itself.” Asked by a sympathetic interviewer what he was after in this starkest of pictures, Hopper simply said, “I’m after me .”

Poet Mark Strand, in his beautifully observant 1994 study “Hopper,” calls “Sun” “Hopper’s last great painting, a vision of the world without us; not merely a place that excludes us but a place emptied of us.” There’s no questioning the man’s radical solitariness, which one would simply call misanthropy if his work didn’t speak so eloquently of the tender and ineffable mysteries of the human condition.

Hopper’s life was one long philosophical malaise. Levin, plain-spoken in her well-considered insights, has a sharp ear for prescient lines on her subject and quotes critic Jacob Getlar Smith’s singling out of what he saw in Hopper’s work as “a somberness, a realization that existence is serious and at times desolate--that despite rigid demands, out of every day percolates a radiancy, the haunting spell of life itself.”

It’s that haunting element, arising partly out of the spareness of his craft, that has preserved not only Hopper’s popularity--is there a more telling snapshot of the dark night of the American soul than “Nighthawks”?--but also his critical esteem. Clement Greenberg was the champion of Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists, Hopper’s usurpers, when he ventured in 1947 that Hopper’s “insight in itself is literary . . . but if he were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist.”

A curious aspect of Levin’s book is that the author, who has published her own tome on the Abstract Expressionists, gives fairly short shrift to such art world discord. Although Edward and Jo went so far as to team up with fellow artistic conservatives like Jack Levine to fight a rear-guard action through the short-lived Art Times, Levin deals with such conflict much as she deals with Edward’s cranky, almost jingoistic politics (he went from loathing Franklin Roosevelt to mistrusting Kennedy): as an aggravation that only occasionally penetrates the couple’s determinedly insular world.


The Hoppers’ lifestyle holds an odd fascination: winters, over most of their decades together, at 3 Washington Square in New York, 74 steps up the staircase with the bathroom down the hall and not enough heat; summers on Cape Cod without phone or electricity until they reached their 70s, and marathon driving tours south and west, often with Mexico as a destination. They seemingly fought, tragicomically, through much of the mileage, whether running errands or exploring remotest Mexico.

Levin’s first several chapters cover Hopper’s childhood (and his parents’ history) in thorough albeit largely unrewarding detail. There’s speculation that he was thrashed at times by his otherwise milquetoast father, thereby acquiring the violent streak that Jo later endured--but the section’s longueurs, and those that follow detailing the Parisian odyssey that admittedly shaped his craft, will leave some aching for the New York years that marked the beginning of Hopper’s slow march of great American painting.

The strength of this book, lifting fairly readily out of the minutiae, is in the detailing of Hopper’s creative process. We see him studying his subjects, desultorily then intently, making sketches, making color studies and disappearing into the work. He had no greater goad or appreciator than Jo; seeing the horses he is painting into his dark study of riders in Central Park, she rhapsodizes over how the canvas “reeks of horseflesh.” Levin is at her best when, amid her gently interpretive critiques, she supplies context and useful detail; what the brooding young woman holds in “Hotel Room,” for example, is a train schedule.

Where Levin is far from her best is in the many passages that delve into Jo’s unending struggle for her own place in a milieu where her cold, even sneering husband was king. The poignancy of her plight is unmistakable and is expressed in pithy, often witty terms.

But looking at the small black-and-white reproductions of her work, including some thoroughly twee studies of flowers and cats, will not move many to feel that her obscurity as a painter constitutes a gross injustice. (The Whitney Museum of American Art discarded most of her work, which was bequeathed to it as part of the Hopper collection.) What’s more, Jo’s incessant electioneering on her own behalf is almost as off-putting as Edward’s chilling, selfish insensitivity toward it. With less hand-wringing from Levin, Jo might have come off more sympathetically, and this volume might be less of a doorstop.

“As a human being, he doesn’t qualify,” says Jo Hopper in one access of bitterness, and another time, “I’ve been swindled of all the deeply human values.” But the saturnine central figure can be drolly self-deprecating. Of a 1930s photo of himself amid others, Hopper said: “I look like a very gentle, harmless and much resigned old lady.”


Edward Hopper was almost never generous in any way, making his small virtues--total fidelity, abstemious habits, the rare thoughtful word--stand out more than they otherwise might. In 1918 his great (and lifelong) friend Guy Pene du Bois “caught the whole drama,” as Levin notes, of Hopper’s odd character: “Should be married. But can’t imagine to what kind of a woman. The hunger of that man . . . the hunger of him!” In his present condition, du Bois noted, he was “not an artist. Not free enough for that.”

Hopper would find his freedom--in the mute poetry of 1925’s “House by the Railroad,” 1930’s “Early Sunday Morning,” 1956’s “Four Lane Road” (Levin’s book cover), in the bittersweet farewell of 1965’s “The Two Comedians” (held in the collection of Barbara and Frank Sinatra) and in many others. What a New York Times critic noted in 1923 as “a certain philosophy of seeing” was present in him early on, and however grim his personal trek, he stayed close to his earliest inspirations.

Hinting with his usual reluctance about 1960’s “Second Story Sunlight,” Hopper would say, “There is a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house.” For the artist, and for many who find in his work the portrayal of an otherwise inexpressible spiritual hunger, that’s enough.