The Life and Art of Edward Hopper, American Realist Painter

Solemn-faced Edward Hopper wearing a brown hat.
Self-Portrait, 1925-30, by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 25 3/8 × 20 3/8 in. (64.5 × 51.8 cm.) Cropped.

Archival reproduction from Spiffing Prints. 

Artist Edward Hopper (1886-1967) created somber portraits of modern life in America. Famous for his painting Nighthawks, he depicted desolate urban scenes and haunting rural landscapes. Hopper's oil paintings, watercolors, sketches, and etchings expressed a sense of human detachment. Resisting popular trends toward abstract expressionism, Edward Hopper became America's most important realist of the 20th century.

Childhood

Tall Victorian house with mansard roof against a gray-blue sky
House by the Railroad, 1925, by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 in. (61 x 73.7 cm.) Cropped. Giclee Canvas Print Paintings Poster Reproduction.

Edward Hopper was born on July 22, 1882 in Upper Nyack, NY, a prosperous yatch-building town 30 miles from New York City. Along with his older sister, Marion, he grew up in a comfortable Victorian house on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. 

Hopper's parents were educated and involved in the arts. The family went to museums, concerts, and other cultural events. As a child, Edward Hopper drew and he saw in the local port. His first signed painting, dated 1895, was Rowboat in Rocky Cove

Supportive but practical-minded, Hopper's parents urged him to pursue a career that would provide a steady income. Since he enjoyed boats and drawing, Hopper briefly considered naval architecture. However, he was more interested in light and color than engineering. He wanted to paint nautical vistas and old houses along the Hudson River.

One of Hopper's most memorable paintings is based on a familiar scene in Haverstraw, NY, several miles from his childhood home. Eerie lighting and skewed perspective give House by the Railroad (shown above) an air of foreboding.

Completed in 1925, House by the Railroad became the first acquisition of the newly founded Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting later inspired the set design for Alfred Hitchcock's terrifying 1960 movie, Psycho.

Continue Reading Below

Education and Influences

Young woman sits half naked on the floor next to a bed in a darkened room.
Summer Interior, 1909, by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 24 1/4 × 29 3/16 in. (61.6 × 74.1 cm) Cropped.Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images.

Edward Hopper's parents advised him to learn a practical trade. After he graduated from the Nyack public high school in 1899, he took a course in illustration and then enrolled at the New York School of Art, now known as Parson's The New School for Design. There, he could study commercial art as his parents wanted while simultaneously developing his skills as a painter. 

Among Hopper's classmates were the talented realists George Bellows, Guy Pène du Bois, and Rockwell Kent. Their teachers included Kenneth Hayes Miller and William Merritt Chase, who used traditional techniques of realism to depict everyday scenes. Most significantly, Hopper became a student of Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School. Henri, who believed that artists should report on harsh conditions of the poor, promoted bold urban realism.

Edward Hopper completed his formal schooling in 1906. Over the next four years, he worked part-time drawing  and, as was customary for art students, made trips to Europe. He visited several countries, but spent most of his time in Paris. 

Post-Impressionism flourished during this era. Fauvism, Cubism, and Dada were exciting new trends and Surrealism brewed on the horizon. However, Edward Hopper showed no interest in new styles. He did not enroll in classes, nor did he mingle with modernist artists. Instead, Hopper read French literature and inspired by early masters like Goya and the nineteenth century impressionists Manet and Degas.

Early works like  (ca. 1906-09), (1908),  (1909), and Summer Interior (shown above) reflect Hopper's training in urban realism. Relaxed brushstrokes depict disturbing moments without judgment or sentimentality. 

Hopper made his last trip to Europe in 1910 and never returned.

Continue Reading Below

Early Career

Black and white illustration of a kneeling woman and a soldier with bowed head.
Illustrations for Everyone's Magazine, December 1921, by Edward Hopper. Public Domain 

In 1913, Edward Hopper exhibited in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show, and sold his first painting, (1911). Ten years passed before he made another sale.

As as struggling young artist, Hopper gave lessons to children in Nyack and drew illustrations for pulp magazines in New York City. Adventure, Everybody’s Magazine, Scribner's, Wells Fargo Messenger, and other publications commissioned his drawings.

Hopper disdained magazine work and longed to spend more time on fine art. His creative process required careful thought. He pondered his subjects and made . Never satisfied, he continued to explore composition and themes on the canvas. Working slowly and deliberately, he painted, scraped away, and repainted. Magazine assignments interrupted this process and sapped his energy. 

Well into his thirties, Hopper wondered whether he would ever succeed as a painter. Meanwhile, his illustrations were gaining respect. His World War I poster  (1918) won the U.S. Shipping Board Prize. He found a creative outlet , and in 1923 his prints won two prestigious awards.

Marriage

Young man and woman slump sadly under a porch light of a country house on a dark night
Summer Evening, 1947, by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 30 x 42 in. (72.2 x 106.68 cm). Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

A pensive woman drifts through Hopper's paintings. Her eyes shadowed, she drapes her slim body in a posture of loneliness and despair. Solitary and anonymous, she appears in Summer Evening (shown above), (1927), (1961), and many other works.  

For decades, Hopper's wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper (1883-1968), served as the model for these figures. Even when Josephine was in her seventies, he painted her poses. These were not true likenesses. Although Josephine's face appeared in (1936) and in several watercolors, Hopper did not usually paint real people. He blurred details and changed the faces to create fictional characters in troubling psychological narratives.

The Hoppers met as students in 1914 and became friends after their paths crossed a decade later. Josephine (often called "Jo") was a public school teacher and a respected painter. The New York Times compared her work to that of Georgia O'Keeffe and John Singer Sargent

When they married in 1924, Josephine and Edward were in their forties. According to her diaries, the marriage was stormy and even violent. Jo wrote that he slapped her, "cuffed" her, bruised her, and banged her head against a shelf. She scratched him and "bit him to the bone." 

Nevertheless, they remained married for the remainder of their long lives. Josephine kept detailed ledgers, documenting Edward's works, exhibitions, and sales. She wrote his correspondence and suggested themes and titles. She provided constructive criticism, encouraged him to paint watercolors, and arranged props and poses for interior scenes.

The couple had no children. Josephine referred to her husband's work as their off-spring, calling her own paintings "poor little stillborn infants." As her career floundered, Hopper's soared. 

Continue Reading Below

Urban Scenes

Red brick city buildings against a blue sky
From Williamsburg Bridge, 1928, by Edward Hopper. 29 3/8 × 43 3/4 in. (74.6 × 111.1 cm). Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Edward Hopper was primarily a New York artist. From 1913 until his death, he spent winter months in a rooftop studio at 3 Washington Square North, an austere Greek Revival building in New York's bohemian Greenwich Village. After their marriage, Josephine joined him in the cramped quarters. The couple left only for summer retreats, occasional travels through the U.S. and Mexico, and visits to Hopper's sister in Nyack.

Hopper's New York studio home had no refrigerator and no private bathroom. He carried coal up four flights of stairs to fuel the potbelly stove. However, this setting was ideal for an artist of urban scenes. Enormous windows and skylights provided brilliant illumination. The surrounding streetscapes suggested subjects for bleak portraits of modern life.

In New York and other large cities, Hopper painted restaurants, motels, gas stations, and railroads. He highlighted the color and texture of brick, concrete, and glass. By focusing on architectural details, he emphasized human estrangement.

From Williamsburg Bridge (shown above) interprets the view seen while crossing the bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Only the slanted railing of the bridge is shown. A lone woman watches from a distant window. 

Other important streetscapes by Edward Hopper include  (1913),  (1927),  (1930), and  (1946).

Rural Scenes and Seascapes

Small white house and lopsided telephone pole on a country road.
Lombard's House, 1931, by Edward Hopper. Watercolor & gouache on paper, 20 x 27-7/8 in. (50.8 x 71.2 cm). Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Prone to melancholy, Edward Hopper found solace in windswept seashores. For most of his adult life, he spent summers in New England. He painted scenes of lighthouses, seascapes, and rural villages in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

Representative of Hopper's New England landscapes,  (1933),  (1948), and  (1960) are studies in light and color. Shadows play across weathered walls and angular roofs. Human figures appear detached and insignificant.

In 1934, during the height of the Depression Era, the Hoppers used Josephine's inheritance money to build a summer cottage in South Truro on the outer edge of Cape Cod. Hopper designed this retreat to capitalize on the shimmering light. Perched on a sand bluff and sided in wood shingles, the 3-room Cape Cod style house overlooked bearberry, dune grass, and quiet beach. 

Although idyllic, the view from Hopper's summer home never became the focus of his New England paintings. As in his urban streetscapes, he explored themes of transience and decay. Often working in watercolors, he painted desolate roads, lopsided telephone poles, and vacant houses. Lombard's House (shown above) was one of many he painted in the Truro region.

Continue Reading Below

Interior Views

On an empty street, views through a lighted window show four people in a diner.
Nighthawks, 1942, by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 33 1/8 x 60 in. (84.1 x 152.4 cm). Institute of Chicago. Wilson/Corbis via Getty Image

Edward Hopper's work is often called evocative and psychologically disturbing. These qualities are especially apparent in interior scenes like  (1928),  (1931).  (1939), and  (1953)  Whether painting a theater lobby, a restaurant, or a private room, Hopper depicted impersonal, harshly lit spaces. Human figures are motionless, as though suspended in time. In many of these paintings, the scene is revealed voyeuristically through a window.

Completed in 1942, Hopper's iconic Nighthawks (shown above) reinterprets a diner near his Greenwich Village studio. Hopper wrote that he "simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger.”

As in van Gogh's The Night Café (1888), Nighthawks presents an uneasy contrast between glaring light, saturated colors, and dark shadows. Edward Hopper accentuated the discomfort by stretching the distance between the stools and by rendering the coffee urns with glistening detail.

In Nighthawks, as in most of Hopper's work, inanimate objects dominate. Buildings and trappings of the industrial age tell the story of 20th century urban alienation.

Death and Legacy

Sun shines through a window onto yellow walls
Sun in an Empty Room, 1963, by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 39 1/2 in. (73 x 100.3 cm).  ArtDirect Framed Print.

The 1940s and 1950s brought the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the U.S.A. The brooding realism of Edward Hopper's work declined in popularity. Hopper became less productive, but continued to work late into his life. He died in his New York studio on May 15, 1967. He was 84.  

One of Hopper's last paintings, Sun in an Empty Room (shown above) approaches abstraction. Walls and floor, light and shadow, form solid blocks of color. Void of human activity, the empty room might foretell Hopper's own departure. 

Less than a year after he died, his wife Josephine followed. The Whitney Museum of American Art received their artistic estates. While Josephine's paintings are rarely exhibited, Hopper's reputation gained new momentum. 

Hopper's childhood home in Nyack, New York is now an art center and museum. His New York Studio is open to visitors by appointment. Tourists in Cape Cod can take  of houses from his paintings.

At art auctions, Hopper's work brings staggering sums—$26.9 million for and a whopping $40 million for . Somber "Hopperesque" scenes have become a part of the American psyche, inspiring film directors, musicians, and writers.

In "," poet Edward Hirsch compares the gloomy, insecure artist to the forlorn mansion he painted: 

... Soon the house starts

To stare frankly at the man. And somehow
The empty white canvas slowly takes on
The expression of someone who is unnerved,
Someone holding his breath underwater.

Continue Reading Below

Sources

  • Berman, Avis. "Hopper: The Supreme American Realist of the 20th-Century." Smithsonian Magazine. July 2007. 
  • Bochner, Paul. "Someplace Like Home." Atlantic Magazine. May 1996.  
  • Crown, Daniel. "The Unlikely Pulp Fiction Illustrations of Edward Hopper." Literary Hub. 5 March 2018.
  • Dicum, Gregory. "Cape Cod, in Edward Hopper’s Light." New York Times. 10 Aug 2008. 
  • Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. University of California Press. 1998.
  • Whitney Museum of American Art. "Edward Hopper, 1882-1967."  
  • Wien, Jake Milgram. "Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper: Looking out, Looking Within." Antiques Magazine. 26 Feb 2016.  
  • Wood, Gaby. "Man and Muse." The Guardian. 25 Apr 2004. 

 

Edward Hopper Fast Facts

Full Name: Edward Hopper

Known For: Painter of landscapes and urban scenes

Born:  July 22, 1882 in Upper Nyack, NY 

Died:  May 15, 1967 in New York City, NY

Important WorksSummer Interior (1909), House by the Railroad (1925), Automat (1927), Early Sunday Morning (1930), Nighthawks (1942)

Spouse:  Josephine Verstille Nivison (m. 1924–1967)

Periods and Styles: Urban Realism, Magic Realism, Ashcan School

Quote: "I don't think I ever tried to paint the American scene; I'm trying to paint myself."