Edward Hopper’s Village Muses
This weekend I went to the Whitney Museum, and as I was wandering around on the 7th Floor I found images of the Village that are familiar, nostalgic, bright, and utterly unique. Identifiable from a distance, Edward Hopper’s paintings live in moments of light, clear and still, while also evoking movement like film stills, eerie and mysterious.
Later, I found a wonderful interview with Edward Hopper conducted by John D. Morse, for the Archives of American Art, which took place at the Whitney Museum in June of 1959.
JOHN MORSE: Mr. Hopper, Apartment Houses, painted 1923… I thought that in this painting you had, well in a sense, crystallized your style that was going to develop and has continued ever since. Do you agree with that?
EDWARD HOPPER: Yes, I think that is so.
JOHN MORSE: Do you recall where it was painted?
EDWARD HOPPER: It was painted in my studio on Washington Square.
That studio remains preserved at 3 Washington Square North, where Edward Hopper lived and worked for 53 years. This is but one of many sites in the Village intimately connected to Edward Hopper and his paintings, some of which also still stand today.
Edward Hopper was born in Nyack, New York to a middle-class family that encouraged his artistic abilities. He studied at the Correspondence School of Illustrating in New York City (1899–1900), and then at the New York School of Art (1900–1906). From his studies of illustration, he moved into the practice of painting by studying with well-known painters William Merritt Chase, an Impressionist, and Robert Henri, a realist.
In the 1910s, Hopper exhibited his work in a variety of group shows in New York, including the Exhibition of Independent Artists (1910) and the famous Armory Show of 1913 at which he displayed his painting Sailing.
Hopper moved to Greenwich Village when he began selling paintings. He lived and worked at 3 Washington Square North throughout his career and life. In 1920, at the age of thirty-seven, he received his first one-person exhibition at The Whitney Studio Club, recently founded by the heiress and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
So many connections to the Whitney! Which has, on view, several other of Hopper’s paintings including his famous painting Early Sunday Morning.
The description of the painting offered by the Whitney is poetic and evokes the tension in Hopper’s paintings:
Although he described this work as “almost a literal translation of Seventh Avenue,” Hopper reduced the New York City street to bare essentials. The lettering in the window signs is illegible, architectural ornament is loosely sketched, and human presence is merely suggested by the various curtains differentiating discrete apartments. The long, early morning shadows in the painting would never appear on a north-south street such as Seventh Avenue. Yet these very contrasts of light and shadow, and the succession of verticals and horizontals, create the charged, almost theatrical, atmosphere of empty buildings on an unpopulated street at the beginning of the day.
Even the description from the Whitney indicates that, the way the shadows lay, this wouldn’t have been possible on Seventh Avenue. Also, the painting doesn’t really look like Seventh Avenue. And it’s true! GVSHP’s research indicated that, in spite of popular lore and Hopper’s attempts to throw the public off the trail, Early Sunday Morning was likely based upon the buildings which still stand at 233-237 Bleecker (at Carmine Street), not Seventh Avenue. Reading through the landmarking proposal for 233-237 Bleeker Street, GVSHP confirms that “Such morning shadows parallel to the curb and buildings could not occur on Seventh Avenue, a north-south street. The buildings clearly date from the nineteenth century and no buildings of this vintage ever existed in the Village on Seventh Avenue below Eleventh Street for a simple reason; there was no Seventh Avenue below Eleventh Street until 1916, when the City cut through several Village blocks to connect Seventh Avenue with Varick Street.” The research is based partially on a great old photo by Percy Loomis Sperr of Bleecker Street – complete with the shadows, low buildings, and barber’s pole in the street. It’s undeniable. Read the full report here.
In 1923, Hopper married Manhattanite artist Josephine Verstille Nivison, who became an indispensable element of his art. She assisted him in his studio, kept their home, and meticulously recorded of his completed works, exhibitions, and sales. She also worked to protect their home and studio space from NYU, which sought to evict the Hoppers in 1946 in what Jo Hopper called “The Battle of Washington Square, the long struggle against New York University.” Now, NYU owns the studio but has preserved it for visitors and students.
Jo Hopper modeled nearly every female figure for her husband’s paintings, most notoriously as the mysterious redhead in his painting Nighthawks. Edward Hopper said that Nighthawks was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,” which GVSHP also did research about, to see if we could pinpoint the location of that diner. This is where realist art and fiction intersect: we concluded that the Nighthawks diner was likely an amalgamation of a few different diners in the area of Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue. Read the full research here, it’s exhaustive and delightfully full of old photos of diners. Here’s the gist:
…Any number of [diners] may well have inspired “Nighthawks at the Diner,” but it seems clear that there was never any such diner at the corner of 7th Avenue South and Greenwich Avenue as has been often alleged. Though none may have been the exact size and shape of the diner in the painting (and until we see a photo of the former diner at 173 Seventh Avenue South we cannot know for sure), Hopper admittedly altered his scene a great deal. In crafting his vision, Hopper most likely borrowed bits and pieces from several different restaurants.
Edward Hopper’s Greenwich Village was one of light, corners, limitless snooping and artistic eavesdropping on the strangers who moved through each other’s lives, whether it was a woman setting out fruit in a store window, folks sitting together in a bar, or a maid going about her duties in the window of a corner apartment. It’s a city of lines, of movement and stillness, and of little details that provide their own inspiration.
Hopper used to climb up to the roof of his house to make watercolors, painting the non-human figures of the Village, too, as we can see in his painting Roofs, Washington Square, from 1926.
Hopper was as inspired by the bottoms of buildings around him in the Village as he was by the tops of them. GVSHP’s research on his iconic painting Drug Store indicates its likely inspiration was the building at 154 West 10th Street, on the south side of the intersection with Waverly Place, in a space now (and for some time) occupied by the beloved bookstore Three Lives.
The insides of Village buildings, of course, spoke to Hopper as well. One of his most popular paintings was of the interior of the Sheridan Theater, which stood on the triangular block bounded by Greenwich and Seventh Avenues and West 12th Street. It was demolished in 1969 to make way for St. Vincent’s Hospital’s facilities buildings, which have since been demolished to make way for the new St. Vincent’s Park and the NYC AIDS Memorial.
For more information on this, read here.
Edward Hopper died in 1967 in his studio home on Washington Square. His wife Jo died less than a year later. Though they traveled broadly and Hopper painted many remote and rural scenes, his paintings like Apartment Houses, Skylights, Roofs of Washington Square, Sheridan Theater, and so many more root his work in the Village.
Hopper’s paintings live on in exhibit at the Whitney Museum in the West Village, and in museums around the world. His legacy of representational art and painting the Village lives on in the brushes of New York painters who continue to paint the Village, many of which are on view right now the Salmagundi Art Club, a partnering organization, and friend of GVSHP’s. Read more about their “Greenwich Village: People, Places, and Things” Exhibition and check it out in person! I’m looking forward to going and seeing how artists now are looking at the same street corners that Hopper painted, and creating new art from our familiar, inspiring neighborhood.