(Review of Hopper: An American Love Story)
Over the years, the excellent Exhibition on Screen series has chronicled the major shows hosted by the world's leading galleries and museums. Public taste has largely dictated a focus on Western Art and the principal figures from the key movements in European painting. There have been a couple of excursions to the Americas for The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism (2017) and Frida Kahlo (2020). Joining this select band is Hopper: An American Love Story, which explores the life and legacy of one of the USA's most visually distinctive artists.
Tellingly, the documentary opens with a monochrome TV clip of Edward Hopper agreeing with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's contention that artistic activity should be a reproduction of the surrounding world in a personal form and original manner. It then takes us on a scenic tour of Nyack, New York, where Hopper was born into a mercantile family on 22 July 1882.
Kathleen Motes Bennewitz, the executive director of the Edward Hopper House Museum explains how parents Garret and Elizabeth were religious pillars of the community who encouraged their son to read and explore the locale with a notebook. A keen sailor, he began sketching at an early age and noted the play of light through his bedroom window. Scholar Elizabeth Thompson Colleary notes how a growth spurt made him introverted and self-conscious, but his time as an illustrator on the school newspaper convinced him of his artistic destiny.
Drawn to New York, Hopper studied under William Merrit Chase and Robert Henri and Carmentina Higginbotham, Professor and Dean of the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, claims that they interested him in modernism and abstraction, while he remained committed to representation. Over `Two Self-Portraits and Two Hand Studies' (1900) and two canvases entitle `Self-Portrait 1903-06', we hear Henri's views on artists `giving evidence' by depicting aspects of their own lives. Yet Higginbotham avers he wasn't interested in the American experience during his time as an illustrator for advertisements and publications like New York and Its House. Among the items shown here are `Don Quixote', Jeanne d'Arc' and `Boy and Moon' (all 1906-07) and Bennewitz suggests that the mundanity of the commissions and deadline pressures convinced Hopper that he had to do things his own way.
In 1906, therefore, he left for Paris. Sue Roe, the author of The Private Lives of the Impressionists, relates that Henri had urged him to study Édouard Manet and explore Paris. But Hopper's mother - seen in `Elizabeth Griffiths Smith Hopper: The Artist's Mother' (c.1905-16) - had made provision for him to stay at a church mission. We see `Stairway At 48 rue de Lille, Paris' (1906), as Colleary and Roe joke about how little he saw of the city, as he stayed home and read when not getting inspiration for items like `Man Seated At Café Table', `Paris Street' (both 1906), `Waiter and Diners' (1906-07), `La Pont des Arts' (1907), `La Port Royal', and `Le Quai des Grands Augustins' (both 1909).
Roe opines that Hopper was influenced by the Impressionist penchant for painting from life and capturing natural light. He certainly missed the alternative scene in Montmartre, but he fell in love with Alta Hilsdale, although the liaison only came to light with the recent discovery of some letters at the house in Nyack. However, as we see `Couple Near Poplars' (1906) and `Study of a Woman Sitting on a Bridge in Paris' (1906-09', we hear extracts from her letters distancing herself and regretting his earnestness.
Colleary interprets `Summer Interior' (1909) as a reflection of Hopper's heartbreak, although there is something disconcerting about the image of a young woman unclad from the waist down slumped on the floor beside her bed. This was painted back in New York and Kim Conaty, Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Whitney Museum of American Art, recalls how Hopper came to find his studio at 3 Washington Square North. Around this time, he painted `Soir Bleu' (1914), which is regarded as a key work by Adam Weinberg, the Director of the Whitney, who sees in it Hopper's admiration for Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso. This French café scene (in which Hopper is presumed to be the sad clown in the centre) was slammed by contemporary critics for being too European and it was hidden away for decades and this rejection impacted upon the style Hopper would adopt.
Over the sketches `Self-Portrait With Hat' (c.1916), `Night in the Park', `Night Shadows' (both 1921), `East Side Interior' (1922), and `The Locomotive' (1923), we hear Hopper confide that a mature artist's style can always be seen in their early works. This is certainly true of these inky images, which all anticipate the compositional conventions that would become his norm.
In 1912, Hopper visited Gloucester, Massachusetts. Elliot Bostwick Davis, Guest Curator of Edward Hopper & Cape Arts, reveals that he had yet to sell a painting. But he met Josephine Nivison, a former student of Robert Henri, who had painted her in `The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison)' (1906). Her talent is evident in the undated `Self-Portrait' and she married Hopper after they met again in Brooklyn in 1923, the year in which Nivison painted `Our Lady of Good Voyage'. This was a decade after he had sold `Sailing' (1911) for $250 and started to make an impression. But it wasn't until they married and she became his painting partner that he became the artist admired today.
Nivison encourged him to paint watercolours like `Haskell's House' (1924) and `Adam's House' (1928). Carol Troyen, Curator Emeritus of American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, highlights his embrace of the American vernacular and his genius for capturing the quotidian. One of these architectural items, `The Mansard Roof' (1923), became only his second sale after it was exhibited in a show with Nivison's work. A neat match shot introduces `Anderson's House' (1926), which Troyen indicates ran counter to the free-flowing style seen in most watercolours, as a pencil mark can be seen beside one of the clouds.
Comparison are made between Hopper's `House By the Railroad' (1925) and `Universalist Church' (1926) and Jo's `Gloucester Roofs' and `Railroad Gates' (both 1928), which Hopper painted from the identical position that same year. Colleary reckons it's obvious that they painted side by side, but notes that Jo's colours are more spontaneous in pictures like `Striped Tents, Gloucester' (1928).
In New York, works like `Manhattan Bridge' (1925-26) and `Rooftops' (1926) are notable for their lack of people. But Higginbotham finds them welcoming at a time when paintings like George Bellows's `New York' (1911) teemed with life. There's a disengagement from human activity in `Blackwell's Island' (1928), which is tantamount to landscape as still life. In a TV interview, Hopper extolled his own diversity and Weinberg agrees that he didn't fit into any category and became influential because he insisted in pursuing his own vision.
This is clear in `New York Pavements' (1924-25), `Eleven AM' (1926) and `Drug Store' (1927), which are all immediately recognisable as Hoppers. Weinberg notes over `Roofs, Washington Square' (1926) and `The City' (1927) that he is painting his own version and ignoring new structures like the Empire State and the Chrysler Building, as well as the bustle of the streets below. Franklin Kelly, Curator of American Paintings at Washington's National Gallery of Art identifies a loneliness in these works and `Sunday' (1926) and `Night Windows' (1928).
A standout from this period is `Automat', which Troyen remarks typifies Hopper's tendency to fill canvases with details that don't quite add up. Colleary concurs that his stories are enigmatic, as this image of a woman at a table with a cup of coffee could as easily be an emancipated working girl enjoying a quiet moment as a lonelyheart who's been jilted by her date. Troyen gives a similar thoroughly modern reading to `Chop Suey' (1929), which shows two women lunching at a Chinese restaurant.
Over `Manhattan Bridge Loop' and `Fort Williamsburg Bridge' (both 1928), we hear Hopper explaining his compositional choices. But his very personal brand of realism in pictures like `Early Sunday Morning' (1930) exclude the social, political and economic forces at play on the scenes being depicted. Weinberg points out over `Room in Brooklyn' (1932) that Hopper painted his times from within his own bubble, hence the absence of people of colour.
As we see `Hotel Room' (1931) and `Room in New York', we hear Hopper explain that pictures took a long time to plan, but came easily once he reached the easel. Weinberg highlights over `Study For New York Movie' and `Study For Hotel Lobby' (both 1942) that Jo was almost always his female model, as she was jealous of him using anyone else. Yet, he dominated her with his aggressive impassivity and invariably replaced her face with those he had seen at the theatre or the cinema or in advertising. As we see `Compartment C Car' (1938), Colleary suggests that using Jo also suited Hopper, as he wasn't at his best with strangers. Over `Jo Hopper' (1936), we hear her weary observations on living with a man who refuses to interact with those around him and we learn how different their personalities were.
Hardly prolific, Hopper would produce a couple of paintings a year and `New York Movie', `Summertime' and `Hotel Lobby' (both 1943) reflect his love of the movies. Weinberg cites the influence of pictures like Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and Delbert Mann's Marty (1955) and is amused that the Bates house in Psycho (1960) resembles the edifice in `House By the Railroad'. This mutual exchange of ideas can also be seen in `Office At Night' (1940), which anticipates the look of film noir, which excites Higginbotham because it's so full of questions and possibilities. Yet, we learn nothing about whether Hopper was familiar with German Expressionism or French Poetic Realism, which helped shape the noir aesthetic from John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) onwards.
This predated `Nighthawks' (1942), which is Hopper's most iconic painting. We hear Nivison's ledger description of its contents, as Troyen marvels at its enigmatic details. But something about its lighting or brush technique might have been more useful than a discussion about the lack of an entrance and the fact the side door doesn't have a handle.
Over `Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine', `Hill and Houses, Cape Elizabeth, Maine', `Captain Lipton's House', and `Light At Two Lights' (all 1927), Hopper explains how he tries to avoid the mistake of other artists by keeping emotion out of his work. The scene shifts to Truro, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, where he painted `Road and Houses, South Truro' (1930-33) and `Ryder's House' (1933) - which bring back memories of the rustic views in Margy Kinmonth's Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War.
Lecturer Lisbeth Wiley Chapman comments on how prolific Hopper was during his visits to Truro and how much inspiration he found in such a relatively small place. He reveals in a TV interview how he focused on light in works like `Cobb's Barns and Distant Houses' (1930-33) and `Marshall's House' (1933) and he became so hooked on the place that they built a house in 1934 with money Jo had inherited. She painted an undated picture, `The Hopper House', but her true feelings about the place are contained in the diaries shown us by Christine McCarthy from the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Amusingly, she outlines how Jo called Hopper `Eddy' when she was happy with him and `E.' when she was not and the latter far outnumber the former.
She often complains about how he stopped her working, while he was producing pieces like `Study of Jo Hopper Reading' (1934-35), `Jo Hopper At the Truro House' (1934-38), `Study of Jo Hopper Seated and Sewing' (c.1934-40), and `Jo Hopper Reading' (c.1935-40). Colleary claims Hopper would go days without speaking to Jo when he was working. But she also insists they were devoted to one another and his affection is evident in sketches like `Study of Jo Hopper' (1945-50) - although remains anonymous in her `Untitled Figure With Palette and Brushes'.
McCarthy has reached the conclusion that Hopper wasn't nice to Jo and was a pretty resistible person. Truro resident Joan Marshall recalls how curt he was to her at a house party, while Kim Stephens recalls Jo drawing her as a girl and being friends with her mother. Hopper details the decisions that informed `Cape Cod Evening' (1939), but doesn't mention that the uncommunicative couple could well be him and Jo. Kelly confirms that few Hopper figures interact, but his work contains a tension that makes the viewer engage in a way that almost make them feel like stills from a movie melodrama that has everyone clutching hankies on the edge of their seat.
Over `Ground Swell' (1939), we hear Hopper lament that he wishes he had a greater inclination to paint, as he gets bored reading or going to the pictures. He sketches, but needs to be wholly committed before painting and often burns the drawings, even if they contribute to something like `Gas' (1940) and `Dawn in Pennsylvania' (1942). Jo enjoyed these road trips, which often involved trips to museums and resulted in such items as `Jo in Wyoming' and `El Palacio, Mexico' (both 1946).
Weinberg alludes to the matter-of-factness of `Seven AM' (1948), `Cape Cod Morning' (1950), and `Morning Sun' (1952), as though Hopper were musing on the many banal moments that make up the average life. While he was happy to dwell in such seclusion, Jo craved society and she resented him narrowing her horizons and using her as a bouncer to keep people away. He did TV interviews, if only to counter critical interpretations of works like `Sea Watcher' (1952) and `Office in a Small City' (1953). As Higginbotham contends, these are idealised statements that bore little relation to the `melting pot' idea of American society. She questions the lack of diversity in pictures like `Hotel By a Railroad' (1952), while Conaty remarks on his disinterest in the social and bohemian revolutions going on around him in the 1950s and 60s. But. even though `South Carolina Morning' (1955) depicts a Black woman, no one ventures an opinion about whether Hopper was racially prejudiced or simply universally misanthropic.
He clearly felt little need to justify his lifestyle or his art and Weinberg and Kelly dismiss the idea he existed in a cocoon from which he periodically emerged to gauge which way the wind was blowing. Instead, he had found a method that suited him and stuck with it to keep creating works like `Rooms By the Sea' (1951), `Western Hotel' (1957), `People in the Sun' (1960) and `New York Office' (1962).
Jo considered the paintings to be their children and kept tabs on where they ended up. She wrote that the watercolours will become precious, as Hopper now prefers to improvise in his studio. Troyen confides that Hopper became less productive, even though he continued to make masterpieces like `Sun in an Empty Room' (1963), even though he often felt disappointment at the way in which the idea in his mind's eye turned out.
Over `Chair Car' (1955), Kelly acknowledges that while Hopper influenced people he prefers to see him as a one-way track heading towards his own perception of perfection. He also did his overdue bit to boost Jo's reputation after she exhibited in 1958 and it's accepted that his final canvas, `Two Comedians' (1965), was a public declaration of gratitude for all she had done over their four decades together.
Closing on a cosy image of the pair reading the papers on a park bench, this is a fascinating reappraisal of Edward Hopper's legacy and the debt he owed to Jo Nivison, who sacrificed her own career so that he could prosper. In truth, his treatment of her could easily lead to a backlash. But the speakers seem too aware of the value of the Hopper brand to delve too wokefully, especially when it comes to how he might be viewed through the prism of such modern movements as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
Director Phil Grabsky's focus on the partnership that underpinned Hopper's achievement is extremely shrewd and the inclusion of the extracts from the Nivison diaries is inspired. As is the split screen comparing their view of the railway gates. A little more about the last 1o months of her life after Hopper's passing in 1967 and the establishment of her own artistic reputation might have been nice, but it makes sense to show them together in footage of Nivison leading the way and Hopper following.
What becomes clear is that Hopper the man was as elusive as his pictures. Given that he was so reclusive, it would be intriguing to know how and when his reputation burgeoned and discover how he sold, who bought him and how he was regarded by the critics and his peers, especially as his style and technique didn't change dramatically over half a century. Given his lack of interest in the world around him, one is left to speculate about his politics and how he responded to America's entry into the Second World War. Was he merely isolated or was he also an Isolationist?
A few insights about his reading matter and the kind of films he watched might also have been revealing. If he stuck to Hollywood fare, to what extent was his view of America fashioned by the 1934 Production Code, which heavily sanitised the content of all forms of motion picture to avoid lowering public morale or morals. Interestingly, cinema is one of the main areas where the influence of Hopper's style can be seen (although Hollywood has also paid its dues to such contemporaries as Norman Rockwell and Grant Wood). In addition to features like Herbert Ross's Pennies From Heaven (1981) and Wim Wenders's The End of Violence (1997), avant-garde film-makers like Gustav Deutsch have pastiched his motifs in the brilliant Shirley: Visions of Reality (2014). At a guess, Swedish surrealist Roy Andersson must also be a fan.
Any documentary that raises so many issues and invites the viewer to uncover more about the subject has more than fulfilled its brief. As always, the travelogue visuals are crisp and the presentation of the artworks is exemplary. Hopper's pictures certainly emerge with more credit than the man himself. But the real star is the wife who didn't like to cook, the green-eyed model who insisted on posing, the business manager who regarded buyers as in-laws, and the artist whose talent is finally being appreciated. It's just a shame documentary characters don't qualify for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards.