Edward Hopper achieved fame relatively late in life, with his art career gaining momentum during the early years of the Great Depression. After years as a working artist, the Met, MoMA, and the Whitney started acquiring his paintings. Hopper turned 50 on July 22, 1932.
That year Hopper and his wife Jo moved toward the front of the building at 3 Washington Square North into a sunnier spot on the fourth floor that afforded a view overlooking the park. Inspired by the new point of view he started painting November, Washington Square, a landscape that showed the buildings on the north side of the park, prominently Judson Memorial Church. He set the unfinished painting aside for about twenty-seven years, coming back to it in 1959 and filling in the missing sky. Hopper shows Washington Square to be completely empty, not surprising for a painter known to remove people from his compositions. The painting shows a sleepy village, and with the earth tones and blue sky it looks like it could be a village in northern New Mexico.
Previous to the move to the sunny side, he painted an oil and a few watercolors of the views of the roofs from the back of the building, ones that show the chimney vents and such. City Roofs (1932) features the looming presence of 1 Fifth Avenue, the Art Deco skyscraper that upset the Villagers when it was erected. Interestingly, Hopper ignored many of the famous buildings of the era such as the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center and stuck mainly to pedestrian subjects. This strikes me as a wise move.
Alfred Barr organized Hopper's first retrospective at MoMA for the fall of 1933. In his review, Lewis Mumford identified a streak of loneliness in his paintings, a characterization that has stuck till the present day.
I find it encouraging to know that a hard-working middle-aged guy can catch a break in hard times. Reading the economic news can lead to some serious despair, the kind that can interrupt the flow of life and propel the worrywart back to bed. It's unfortunate that we have the same word for a sustained downturn in the economy as well as a clinical psychological state of despair. According to biographer Gail Levin, Hopper himself was prone to symptoms of depression, especially a lethargy that sometimes interfered with his work. Still, he persevered through a tense marriage and difficult economic times. Building a house on Cape Cod, and therefore having a change of scenery as well as a large studio, seemed to have helped with the mood. He also read a lot and went to the movies. *
Here's a short walk that begins at Hopper's house on Washington Square North and ends at the demolished diner made famous in Nighthawks (1942). The route goes by the original location of the Whitney Museum on 8th Street and then angles up Greenwich Avenue.
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Notes on the walk:
• 8 W. 8th St. Formerly home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, from 1931 until its move uptown in 1954.
• 147 W. 4th St. Hopper's first one-man show was held at the Whitney Studio Club at 147 W. 4th St. in January 1920, mainly featuring paintings from his Paris years. (We should all have our Paris years.)
November, Washington Square by Edward Hopper, oil on canvas, 34 1/8 by 50 1/4 inches, 1932 and 1959, Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
*Additional Note: Here's an article on the Dexigner website from 2007 about the creative studio Exopolis that designed the TCM trailer inspired by Hopper paintings. Many of Hopper's paintings were inspired by the movies, and many filmmakers have been influenced by Hopper.