The poetic solitude of man confronted to the “American way of life” in Hopper
The text below is the excerpt of the book Edward Hopper (ISBN: 9781783107582), written by Gerry Souter, published by Parkstone International.
“My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature. If this end is attainable, so, it can be said, is perfection in any other ideal of painting or in any other of man’s activities.”— Edward Hopper
On 22 July 1882, Edward Hopper emerged into the middling-size prosperous town of Nyack, New York on the Hudson River. His mother, Elizabeth Griffiths Smith Hopper, was of English and Welsh stock, while his father, Garrett Henry Hopper, came from generations of English and Dutch ancestors. The elder Hopper tried his hand at sales and finally opened a dry goods store that failed to achieve any great success. Edward was the second child in the family, arriving two years after his sister, Marion.
While Hopper senior toiled amid bolts of cloth, cards of buttons and celluloid collars, Edward’s mother kept her son and daughter supplied with creative tools targeting the theatre and art. An early prized possession for young Edward was a slate blackboard and chalk. He could draw and erase with impunity, but any particularly satisfying result lacked permanence. He began sketching and painting early, taking his sketchbook with him on frequent treks into the nearby countryside.
The Hopper home at 82 North Broadway belonged to Elizabeth’s widowed mother, Martha Griffiths Smith, and was the site of Liz and Garrett’s marriage in 1879. It was a rambling twostorey white frame house sheltered by trees and punctured by shuttered windows beneath deepset eaves, decorated with cornices and belted with a corner porch across the front. To Edward, this place with its dark windows that revealed nothing of the lives lived inside represented home, personal solitude and a refuge during his early years. Its counterparts would appear repeatedly in his future paintings.
The fact that his father could not afford to move their family into a house of their own had to affect Edward’s Victorian childhood during which men were expected to be the sole providers. His Grandmother Smith not only owned the house but also claimed the moral high ground in the community where her father, The Reverend Joseph W. Griffiths, had started up the Nyack Baptist Church back in 1854. The female side of the Hopper family provided for the family needs through rents and mortgage payments on other Nyack properties.
Edward and his older sister Marion attended private schools and came home to rooms cleaned by an Irish maid, and delivery boys bringing groceries and other purchases bought on account in town. His grades were above average throughout high school. One of his favourite subjects was French, which he studied and learned well enough to be able to read throughout his life.
At a time when the average grown man’s height reached five feet eight inches, young Hopper at twelve years old already towered at six feet. He seemed to be all arms and legs, causing his friends to nickname him “Grasshopper”. He loved jokes at other people’s expense and often raged when he did not win at games. Many friends remembered his teasing, an annoying and persistent character flaw that stayed with him, often with a sadistic edge, into adulthood. Naturally shy, he peered over the heads of his classmates and always ended up in the back row in photographs.
Hopper spent puberty and adolescence wandering along the bank of a nearby lake where ice was harvested in the winter, sketching people, boats and landscapes. Yacht building flourished in Nyack and the boat docks along the river became hangouts for Edward and his friends. They formed the Boys’ Yacht Club and piloted their sailboats with varying degrees of expertise. From those days, Edward carried with him a love of boats and the sea that lasted the rest of his life.
The railway had arrived along with electric light, paved streets and changed the complexion of the town, bringing more traffic, small businesses and a mostly Irish immigrant population. Elegant Victorian houses along the Hudson River belonged to wealthy industrial barons whose Dutch ancestors had amassed fortunes. His world was an idyllic boy’s world at the end of the nineteenth-century.
Hopper’s religious education in the Baptist Bible School was at odds with the freedoms of adolescence. He absorbed teachings on the rewards of a frugal life style and the righteous need to step back from the gratifications of lust and sex and other “immoral behaviour”. Baptists had a strong belief in the hickory switch for bad conduct, but Edward, it seems, was rarely punished for his misdeeds. He was the young prince, the talented untouchable. Yet, his personality developed inward as if ashamed of his ascension in the face of his father’s second-class situation within the upper middle-class success of the matriarchal Smith clan.
This reticence and retreat into long silences later evolved into bouts of depression when his self-perceived skills failed him and the armour of his ego no longer appeared to sustain his ambition. Already he had developed a placid mask to hide behind and contain the demons of perceived inadequacy that dogged his career…
Some of the featured artworks of Edward Hopper:
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Whitney Museum of American Art
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National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C
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