Episode 13: Edward Hopper’s "Room in Brooklyn" (1932)
Of everything that I’ve ever read about, by, or referencing Edward Hopper, there is one quote that I keep coming back to, again and again. And it’s not by an art historian. It’s by his wife, Jo. She said, “Sometimes talking to Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” How great is that? Besides the fact that it’s so sweetly authentic to hear 20th century American master Edward Hopper called Eddie, it just says it all, everything that we associate with a Hopper painting, without even consciously realizing it. The quiet, the stillness, the expectance, the depth. Hopper plays with the qualities of stillness the way that Monet plays with the qualities of light. You never knew how many ways there were to be quiet, or expectant, or deep until you walk up to a Hopper with footsteps that suddenly feel too loud, and drop into it like a stone with no thump.
Of course, quiet for quiet’s sake is hardly compelling. For all of its stillness, Hopper’s work is charged. It’s a calm moment with an electric undercurrent, a duck’s feet paddling like hell under the placid surface of the water. Or, if you will, a quiet apartment looking out onto the serene skyline of Brooklyn as the horns honk and smoke rises from the crowded and bustling street level. You can’t appreciate quiet, a Hopper painting seems to tell us, if you have no experience with noise. And Hopper tackled this contrast directly, as he and his fellow artists ushered in a new brand of distinctly American art that had an increasingly complicated relationship with America, and especially its big cities. They were big, overwhelming, romantic, and impossible: continually expanding, under construction, and bursting at the seams with the potential for opportunity and the potential for insignificance, both in equal measure. People crammed together; people alienated from one another. And by looking at a Hopper, you never really quite know how he feels about all this. We see this woman in her rocking chair, her head gently bent downwards in a perfect geometric patch of late-afternoon light, as the infinity of Brooklyn smokestacks stretches in front of her, and it’s hard to know how to feel, except still. She looks so completely alone, and yet the composition is so calmly balanced by the fresh vase of flowers that the scene doesn’t feel terribly lonely. We could be rounding the table with the dark red tablecloth to join her, or we could be a voyeur with a telescope across the street.
New York as both a subject matter and a conceptual idea was the focus of artists up and down the late 19th and early 20th century, and particularly the Ashcan School, a group of artists in the early 1900s who met studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and who Hopper has been, somewhat problematically, lumped in with. As is often the case, this school was never formally organized. They didn’t have a manifesto, or even a fully consistent painting style, but they all concentrated their gaze on daily life in the City, specifically the poorer neighborhoods and working classes. They felt that American Impressionism, like the work of John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase, romanticized away the grit, and like Degas capturing the underbelly of Haussmannized Paris, they took it upon themselves to embody the spirit of American realism. They were Realists in the most painterly sense, journalists with palettes, political and unflinching in their rendering of urban life, even down to the ash cans in the streets where passersby flicked their cigarette butts—surely a reality of the city, but hardly its most attractive feature. They prided themselves on depicting the variety and scale of life in their bustling metropolis –the immigrants who built the city and then ran it at street level. They painted in dark, moody tones and built up rough, textured brushstrokes, and emphasized the climax of a scene for maximum expressive impact. Picture, for example, the work of Ashcan painter George Bellows and his steaming city streets and hyper-masculine boxing matches. Robert Henri, the group’s founder, said he wanted their paintings of sweaty workers and dirty snow to be “as real as mud.” They valued direct experience, speed of execution, action, and, above all, authenticity.
Now, if you’ve never heard of the Ashcan School, it’s because these dynamic, gritty paintings never really took off stateside. Yanks in the early 1900s just weren’t ready for their thunder and brutality, and once European Modernism, the Picassos, Matisses, and Duchamps, arrived on the American scene by way of the 1913 Armory Show in New York – more on that in another episode – the Ashcan School seemed too tame. Just a case of bad timing. But it’s a disservice to omit them from the story of American art just because they weren’t fully appreciated in their own day, if only because they started the conversation, in bold, potent language, for the complicated relationship with class stratification and alienation in the American city that has never really ended.
So where does Hopper fit into this? I mean, none of this description really sounds like it applies to this painting. To overuse the Degas metaphor for a different end, Hopper was part of the Ashcan School the way that Degas is considered an Impressionist: which is to say, he wasn’t. But Hopper was connected through Robert Henri, who was his teacher at the New York School of Art and Design. Henri encouraged his students to paint with great feeling and again, authenticity, rewording the phrase “art for art’s sake”, a ubiquitous statement in the 19th century to describe the belief that the intrinsic value of an artwork is independent from how anyone actually feels about it, into his own personal motto, “art for life’s sake.” In other words, there’s no value to art that doesn’t contribute to the profundity of our human existence. Or, in other words, take that, American Impressionists.
Hopper took this motto to heart, even though he never truly engaged in the Ashcan style. What did take from them, though, was both this fascination with the city, though in terms of its sterile magnitude and alienation, rather than its gritty, grassroots immigrant experience, and their profound sense of presence, of being truly in the moment of experience. For Hopper, though, rather than capturing the moment of climax, he preferred the quieter, introspective calm after the storm.
Because this is what we see in a Hopper: a direct, specific moment of a universal American experience, and, in the words of John Updike, “always on the verge of telling a story.” We see gas stations and rural landscapes, diners and architecture, all pared down to their visual essentials with a stark, high-contrast style that is more graphic than lyrical, a tuning fork with perfect pitch. And there is a sense of solitude and disaffection – sometimes sad, but sometimes perfectly neutral – that underscores his figures in their environments, placed in or against architecture that casts shadows that are as substantive as the object itself. Contrast became a crucial component to Hopper’s style, influenced, in part, by his own appreciation for the old masters like Rembrandt and Goya, and their ability to use brilliant, subtle light to draw out dramatic and expressive scenes from the shadows.
And we get the feeling that the city itself is contrast, contrast against a rural, homegrown sense of community that is missing in an urban environment. Again, we have to know what we’ve had, and lost, to make the contrast powerful. Hopper paints restaurants instead of family meals, apartments instead of living rooms. He paints with the understanding that his figures, and we the viewers, know that something more connected, and maybe even more suffocating, has been traded for the bright, impersonal lights of the big city. All you need to do is conjure his most famous painting, “The Nighthawks”, in your mind’s eye, to see this in action. We are voyeurs looking in on a fishbowl scene of a middle-of-the-night diner. The figures inside are disengaged, from us, from each other, and while we can see from the detailed straws exactly how much coffee is left in each urn, we have no idea who these people are or how they relate to each other. Again, Hopper plays with specificities and generalities. Consider the specificity of this room in Brooklyn. Anyone who knows Brooklyn knows just how precisely this is Brooklyn, even down to the sky color as at meets the buildings. There is something so freshly cut about these flowers, something so present about her weight in the chair, something so specific about the time of day that would warrant this sunlight.
But everything else is schematized. Generalized. Hopper maintains a sense of universality by blotting out many of the details as well, essentially telling us only what we need to know. This is another example of Hopper’s contrast: he portrays parts of his scenes with almost photographic detail, and others with illustrated, graphic shorthands. From the indistinct rows of windows of the apartment outside, to the perfect block of sunlight on the floor, which stays intact by conveniently ignoring the table and the flowers, Hopper gives us just enough information to almost portray reality, always on the verge of a narrative, and then leaves the rest to painterly insinuation. Hopper owed this style, this attention to balanced, geometric design and saturated color, both to his work as a graphic illustrator early in his career, work he swore he detested and only did for the paycheck, and, ever the American, to the movies. We can see the cinematic influence in the Nighthawks, how the scene is approached like an opening establishing shot. And we can see it here, as we quietly close in on this woman. Hopper’s wife said that he was inspired by film noir style, and often went to the movies at night, alone, like a figure in his own paintings, for inspiration.
Hopper himself said that “great art is the outward expression of the inner life of the artist.” This is hardly a novel statement. After all, we’ve looked at Expressionism before, a few times. We’re used to the fact that when an artist usually says something like this, you expect big, bold colors and brushstrokes to be the outward expression of big, bold emotions. I said in the last episode that to view a Jackson Pollock painting was to view Pollock himself, and, though so much more gently, the same can be said for Hopper. His inner life is outwardly expressed so noiselessly, you didn’t even realize how enthralled you were. It isn’t usually the quiet ones who command your attention, but it makes sense. Stillness draws you close. It invites your concentration. And makes you aware of your footsteps as you lean in and wait for the thump.