I was first fully aware of who Edward Hopper was back in 1981 when I fell in love with Pennies From Heaven, a musical film fantasy with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters based on Dennis Potter’s successful BBC TV Series. The settings for several scenes were right out of Hopper paintings – and the one I recognized immediately was his most famous: Nighthawks. A bit of investigation – the library, yes Virginia we went to the library back in those days – revealed more about him and his work and I number him amongst the 20th century artists that I adore.
When the Hopper exhibition at the Museo di Roma was first advertised on billboards throughout town I made a note to myself that I really had to catch it. And finally I did last weekend – further note to self: try to catch these things other than on the day before they close.
This retrospective has toured several cities here in Italy with Roma being its last stop. I had been hoping that Nighthawk would be amongst the paintings but sadly its still hanging in its usual place at the Art Institute of Chicago. But they did have a marvelous life-sized mock up of the scene and allowed you to have your photo taken in it. Being the shy person I am, I declined as really if Hopper had wanted an extra person in the scene he would have painted them in.
If his most famous painting wasn’t there then certainly others quite recognizable as the work of the Nyack born artist were. Included were some of his early work from Paris, including Soir Bleu and a series of wonderful caricatures. Many of his graphic works from his earlier New York days revealed the subjects he would return to again and again but in shades of black and white.
One of the interesting features was the work ups for so many of the paintings that were included – it appears that Hopper or more specifically his wife and chief model Jo saved pretty much everything he did. When she died in 1968 – a year after Hopper – she left almost 3000 items to the Whitney Museum. Needless to say much of the exhibition was on loan from them.
At the beginning of the exhibition Hopper is quoted as, rather ingeniously, saying: All I ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house., And that he did do – on houses in both urban and rural settings. But he also painted lamplight in streets and parks, the flickering lights in a movie cinema, the clotted light of industrial cities, the clear air of New England, the glare of neon on an interior and the first sun of morning through an open window on the walls of a room and the body of his beloved Jo.
Morning Sun was painted in 1952 and as usual Hopper did a series of drawings before brush touched paint or canvas.
Hopper worked with Conté crayons for most of his preliminary drawings. The top drawing was obviously his initial thoughts on the composition and you can trace the line of this thinking as the drawings become more and more detailed.
What I found fascinating was his detailed notation on colours and shadings to be used once he got to work. Noting the effects he wants to achieve, the degrees of light and shadow within the painting and the shading of colours. This was the first time I was aware of an artist taking that approach – I guess much of my view on how painters work is based on how they do it in Hollywood.
Obviously these notations were meant as guidelines and there would be deviations but it is interesting to see how often those first thoughts are present in the finished work.
As with most of Hopper’s work the lines are clean, at first glance the colours deceptively seem primary and the subject seems very ordinary. What makes its extraordinary is Hopper’s ability to “paint sunlight”.
The preliminary drawings are all from the Hopper collection at the Whitney Museum, the painting itself is in the care of the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio.
18 giugno – Sant’Erasmo di Formia