February 02, 2011

Edward Hopper at the Whitney

It would be an understatement to say that the first half of the twentieth century was a time of incredible change. Between the popularization of the automobile and electricity, two world wars and women gaining the right to vote there was very little left untouched. Art was no exception and here in America that meant the development of Realism - a new school that reflected these social transformations on canvas. In an homage to an icon of Realism and its offshoots The Ashcan School and the American Scene painters, the Whitney Museum of American Art is now presenting "Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time".

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was born to a middle class family in Nyack, New York, a ship building town on the Tappan Zee estuary of the Hudson River. His artistic talents were recognized at a very young age and he eventually studied at the New York Institute of Art and Design under the tutelage of William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri. The dawn of the new century saw a rejection of the refined themes of academic art and an embrace of a new, more representative style of painting that reflected the sensibilities of the day.

This exhibition centers on the work of Edward Hopper but incorporates pieces by other artists of the period as comparisons of styles and influences. For example, Hopper's dear friend Guy Pène du Bois' painting "Opera Box", 1926, shares the same flat, abstract, solidity as Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning", 1930. Another friend and colleague of Edward Hopper was the famous print maker Martin Lewis. Hopper avidly explored the medium of prints from 1915-1923 and the influence of his haunting "Night Shadows" (see left), 1921, can clearly be seen in Lewis' 1930 etching "Shadow Dance".

The parallels continue in the section on the Precisionists where Hopper's watercolors "Rooftops" (see below), 1926 and "Two Trawlers", 1923, share the formal geometries of nearby works such as Charles Sheeler's "River Rouge Plant", 1932.

In the last galleries the focus shifts to American Scene painting - probably the genre for which Hopper is most well known. Here we see the influence of the time spent in small towns and on his beloved Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as depicted in classic American landscapes reinterpreted in his distinctive impersonal yet compelling style. Solitary, inscrutable, bold and detached, paintings such as "Seven A.M." (see below), 1948 or "A Woman in the Sun", 1961, evoke the perplexing, vaguely disturbing, sensation so typical of Hopper's work.

Edward Hopper's contribution to the American art scene was profound. In an era of remarkable change, his work had the ability to confront and disquiet but without a shock. In "Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time", the Whitney has successfully presented its extensive collection of works by Hopper in a fresh new way - by creatively and effectively comparing it to what else was going on in the art world one can far better appreciate the mastery of Edward Hopper.

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