Book review: “Edward Hopper: Portraits of America” by Wieland Schmied

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Book review: “Edward Hopper: Portraits of America” by Wieland Schmied

On one of the final pages of his 1995 study Edward Hopper: Portraits of America, Wieland Schmied emphasizes the starkness, bleakness and harshness of light in Hopper’s paintings, especially those featuring human figures.

He contrasts Hopper with Rembrandt and Vermeer, and writes:

Rembrandt enfolds his figures in a protective darkness as if in a mantle.  His dusky chiaroscuro mercifully hides the things he does not wish to show.  Rembrandt’s pictures seem to say: what takes place in a person’s heart must always remain obscure.

Hopper in a sense removed Rembrandt’s people from their comforting shadows and subjects them to the light of Vermeer.  Unlike Rembrandt’s figures, however, Vermeer’s were created for the light — born into a brighter, more rational world, they were more forthright and self-disciplined, and less vulnerable.  Hopper’s figures, in turn, are as vulnerable as Rembrandt’s, but they have been expelled from Rembrandt’s paradise, the paradise of the past, to be forever subjected to the harsh light of the present.

“A woman in the sun”

“The human situation”

It’s not odd to think of Rembrandt’s or Vermeer’s characters walking into one of Hopper’s paintings which, like a stone goddess, seem to be solidly, profoundly timeless.

Humans are the subject of any Hopper painting — the people in the frame, if there are any, and the one or more persons who are viewing the scene from the vantage that Hopper depicts it, and the people, us, who view the painting.

“New York Movie”

The message in these images is that a person is alone in the world, no matter who he or she is with.

He depicted the crisis of an alienated world, the loneliness of the human situation in the modern age.  He felt this loneliness within himself from very early on, and not even his marriage in 1924 with the actress and artist Jo Nivison — a woman of ebullient temperament — could alter his deep-seated sense of alienation.

Hopper did not fight against this isolation in his art.  He felt it and felt its reality for all people, and he was resigned.  Schmied writes:

Those who believe that the world can be improved, that people can change themselves, will object to Hopper’s resignation.  He was certainly no advocate of emancipation.  He had no ambitions to change the world.  Very few good artists ever have.

Hopper’s view of his fellow human beings is free of both disdain and sentimentality.

“People in the Sun”

“Cold, bright, often glaring light”

Schmied, an Austrian art historian, makes the point that, while darkness can be merciless in its depressing isolation, light — which seemingly should bring warmth — is even more isolating in Hopper’s paintings.

When you consider the light in Hopper’s pictures — cold, bright, often glaring light: sunlight, electric light, fluorescent light, light as if cast by spotlights — you realize that light indeed can be ruthless.

“Sunday”

He notes that the sculptor George Segal quipped that he needed sunglasses to look at a Hopper painting — not just physical ones but emotional sunglasses as well.

Hopper’s light can be blinding, but it has no warmth.  It can awaken the hope of a new life only to disappoint it a moment later — think of the many female figures who bask in the sun, receptive and full of expectation, but who are apparently destined to remain alone.  This is a light that isolates people, deepens their loneliness; light that might have been designed for an inquisition.

“A setting for an Ibsen play”

As examples, Schmied cites “Lighthouse Hill” and “The Lighthouse at Two Lights” which, “are so dramatically rendered that they suggest a setting for an Ibsen play.”  This is light “so cold it almost makes one shiver.”

“Lighthouse Hill”
“The Lighthouse at Two Lights”

Hopper was a fan of Ibsen and of Hemingway.  He admired the American writer’s refusal to provide neat endings for many of his stories. 

For Hopper, there are no neat endings, either — no stories, either, with beginnings, middle and ends.  Just what is seen in a flash frame — the flash frame each of us sees from moment to moment, and the flash frame Hopper offers in his paintings.

Take Hopper’s figures, about whose stories he gives us a few, tempting hints, suggesting fates which seem to be hidden just beneath the surface.  And this suggestion touches us, arouses our interest and concern.  But how are we to define what we see? …More than a paucity of clues, it is this abundance of suggested meaning that makes it so difficult to say anything about Hopper’s pictures.  Their surface proves impenetrable.

“Night Windows”

These human figures are all adults, all white middle-class or working class people, not involved in the moment of the painting in anything extraordinary, such as an accident, a triumph or a protest.

They appear to accept their fate passively.  The world they live in is strangely static, the streets largely empty of passersby, hardly a car or truck on the road.  No tourist, no stranger has strayed into this silent world.  All windows are closed, and no movement is detectable behind them.  It seems to be perpetually Sunday, the city abandoned (or asleep)…This is a world without a future.

“A modicum of dignity”

The main occupation of Hopper’s people, Schmied writes, is waiting.

Hopper depicts people in places where their daily lives are played out: offices, restaurants, movie theaters, trains, hotels.  And he makes perfecting clear that all of them belong to the working world, bound by commitments and obligations, carrying out an occupation that has worn them to its mold.  They are office employees, small businesspeople, tenants, pensioners; they work as waitresses or waiters, train conductors, gas station attendants, cleaning ladies, theater ushers, hairdressers, secretaries.  They live humble lives, eat at cafeterias or automats or hot dog stands, but they do not go hungry and they have a roof over their heads…Hopper’s view of human existence shows it in all its paucity — and yet even so, it retains a modicum of dignity.

“Second Story Sunlight”

Hopper looks at the “paucity” and “dignity” of human life because, in his paintings, he is always present, never at a psychic distance.

He, like his viewers, is there in every seen he depicts.  This is not looking through a window.  

Hopper is one of us.  If we are the biblical Job, facing our plagues without understanding, so is he.  Schmied writes:

Hopper gives us clues to the nature of this existence, a thousand details presented with the utmost clarity.  And yet we sense that, ultimately, we can know absolutely nothing about it.  The only thing we can be certain of is our own ignorance.

Patrick T. Reardon

8.6.19

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