I want you to meet my favourite painter! He died in 1967, the year I was born. He was off my radar too, until a TV producer friend of mine dragged me to the Edward Hopper exhibition in London at the Hayward Gallery in 1981. I was 14, developing a casual interest in painting and drawing to the extent that people would shove paintbrushes in my hand or position canvases in my path.
Horribly distracted by hormones, I sleepwalked through my audience with the Great Master and acquired a few postcards and a ‘so what?’ attitude on the way out. How I…want to slap my younger self.
Picture by Charles Ritchie
Within a few years I tuned into the quiet magic of Hopper and my fascination with his realist style led me to study him for my Art A-Level (un-slapped.) I tried to paint in his style, aping Hockney’s early photo-realistic paintings but all the while aiming for the monumental stillness of Hopper’s human subjects, which were often dwarfed by the faded grandeur of his architecture.
It could have been his rugged, windswept landscapes or the stark and beautiful light of New England but I was spellbound by some undefined, elusive quality. There is a sense of desolation, a profound loneliness to much of his work. It makes me think that for all our sound and fury, there is an emptiness to our existence. Hopper didn’t discriminate between an extravagant Painted Lady or the bold functionality of a light house. He saw beauty in geometry, and he loved the way sunlight paints those shapes, completing them.
His study of dereliction or vacancy is equal to his celebration of our grand achievements. The fanciful facade of a 19th Century theatre is rendered with the same wonder as a simple tenement window glowing at night. But it was the pause for breath backstage which preoccupied Hopper, the noises off. The people in his paintings are very much still-life: quiet, reflective characters captured in oils. If Film Noir had been a colour medium, it would have looked like a Hopper painting.
The great drama of Edward Hopper’s figurative work lies in the mystery of what happened before the moment captured – or what happened after. Although his execution of the human form comes second to his masterful landscapes, the enigma lies in their sense of ennui. Each one seems to be slightly uncomfortable, anticipating something.
Hopper found majesty in our surroundings, exploring the way we impose ourselves on the landscape. We build boxes and we put ourselves in them.