- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

Is there anything new to discover about the popular works by artist Edward Hopper? The National Gallery of Art’s big survey of his career answers in the affirmative by concentrating on the etchings, watercolors and oils by the artist in the 1920s and early 1930s, before Mr. Hopper (1882-1967) tackled his iconic Manhattan scenes.

The preponderance of early work in this well-paced, 96-piece exhibit shifts the focus from the artist’s well-known portrayals of emotionally distant figures to his preoccupation with architecture. In gallery after gallery, his works portray clustered buildings, single structures and rooms, some unpopulated, to ground his enigmatic art in the real world.

Mr. Hopper didn’t paint the famous skyscrapers of his era — the Chrysler or Empire State buildings — but ordinary, utilitarian structures: New England saltboxes and lighthouses; Manhattan storefronts, brownstones and tenements. His intent wasn’t so much to celebrate their designs as to use their walls, windows and roofs as backdrops to the play of light and shadow.

Mr. Hopper’s aspiration to paint “sunlight on the side of a house” is literally represented in the opening image of the show. “Hodgkin’s House” (1928) depicts a dormered cottage with sunshine cast onto its clapboard facade, leaving the rest of the building in shadow. There are no people in this architectural portrait. A white picket fence stretches across the bottom of the canvas to suggest the world beyond the frame, a device more familiar from the stretch of darkened storefronts in “Early Sunday Morning” (1930).

Such New England structures were the source for much of Mr. Hopper’s early work, and the exhibit devotes plenty of space to them. While vacationing in Gloucester, Mass., during the early 1920s, he sketched sea captains’ mansions in watercolors. In Maine, he painted serial views of a fog-signal shed and a lighthouse. On Cape Cod, he rendered shed roofs and chimneys as stark geometric shapes in a manner similar to the austere work of his contemporary Charles Sheeler.

“When everyone else would be painting ships and the waterfront, I’d just go around looking at houses,” the artist told Time magazine in 1956. Even his maritime scenes focus on the structures of boats, as in the rounded towers and smokestacks of “Two Trawlers” (1923-24).

Mr. Hopper had a particular fondness for Victorian houses with mansard roofs and turrets. He would paint these dowagers in isolation to emphasize their monumentality, as in “Haskell’s House” (1924), a less sinister relative of the Bates homestead in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

In other paintings, such as “The City” (1927) and “Blackwell’s Island” (1928), he depicts ornate Second Empire buildings alongside more anonymous row houses and asylums as if creating a guidebook to 19th-century urban architecture.

In a catalog essay, curator Carol Troyen of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts suggests that the artist may have been drawn to these historic buildings based on his nostalgia for similar architecture in his hometown of Nyack, N.Y. Trained by Robert Henri, an Ashcan School painter, Mr. Hopper sought to express American values in his work and undoubtedly appreciated the unpretentiousness of the Yankee sheds and lighthouses he painted. Despite three trips to Europe, he rejected the French-influenced art of his colleagues as inauthentic and superficial.

Mr. Hopper was undeniably an American artist. “The Cat Boat” (1922) and his many figures staring out into space bring Winslow Homer’s sailors and fisherwomen to mind. His New England gabled houses set into windblown fields foreshadow the wistful Maine landscapes of Andrew Wyeth.

Mr. Hopper was a taciturn, brooding man who seemed to identify with the buildings of the past as inanimate outcasts like himself. Victorian architecture is treasured today, but during the artist’s lifetime, it was disdained as old-fashioned, ugly, even culturally deficient. This was an era when American architecture was headed in a streamlined, modern direction, urged on by the groundbreaking 1932 exhibit of Bauhaus-style building designs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Although he was ahead of his time in appreciating America’s heritage, Mr. Hopper didn’t paint these old buildings to advocate for their preservation. He was interested in the interaction between architecture and light: the slant of sunshine on a facade, the reflected glow of artificial illumination in a window.

His perspective on history was modern. Cornices and rooflines are captured from an elevated subway train, as in “From Williamsburg Bridge” (1928), or from high up in a skyscraper, as in “Night Shadows” (1921). By presenting these urban structures from a remove, he strengthened the feeling of remoteness and alienation in his work.

In his New York scenes, particularly the later ones, architecture becomes more intimate and spare. It is cropped and reduced to a stage set for his solitary figures, as in the gray stone stoop of “Summertime” (1943). Or it becomes a foil to a darker, less articulated world of nature as in the illuminated top-story view of “House at Dusk” (1935), one of the knockouts in the show.

These paintings come as part of a section at the end of the exhibit devoted to Mr. Hopper’s greatest hits. Here are displayed the famous scenes of disengaged city dwellers. They include the wee-hours diners of “Nighthawks” and daydreaming usherette of “New York Movie.” (Both these works were brought to life in the 1981 film “Pennies From Heaven,” which starred Steve Martin, who narrates a film on Mr. Hopper produced by the museum that is shown continuously in a small screening room in the exhibit.)

“Nighthawks” cleverly is hung next to two paintings with similar compositions of buildings jutting from the right side of the canvas toward the center. By allowing us to see only a corner of these structures, Mr. Hopper establishes a tension between interior and exterior space. This accentuates the sense of distance separating the people and objects inside the buildings from the bigger world outside.

Architectural elements are used to divide his interiors to deepen the mood of social isolation. A closed door divides the self-absorbed husband and dejected wife in “Room in New York” (1932). A window demarcates the isolation of the seated woman in “Room in Brooklyn” (1932).

After seeing this show, the conventional view of Mr. Hopper as the king of lonely hearts seems reductive and superficial. His is a more subtle art, concerned with revealing the ways in which architecture can enclose and sequester rather than sermonizing about anomie. Even without people, his settings are melancholy.

The often crudely painted figures in his paintings are not so much individuals as actors sent by central casting: the flirtatious secretary, the bored housewife, the handsome athlete. Remove them from their settings, and the paintings remain strong in their outlines. These compositions of rectangles, squares and trapezoids, the result of raking light and deep shadows, are almost as modern as Mondrian’s abstractions.

If there is any doubt about Mr. Hopper’s overriding obsession with architecture, the last painting in the show, “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963), puts it to rest. It shows an empty room lit by a lone window. The blank walls and bare floor are patterned with yellow patches of sunlight and shadows in the corners. In this pure scene, the artist makes no attempt to stage one of his Hollywood-style melodramas. He has given up the story line to reveal the potency of space.

WHAT: “Edward Hopper”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Tomorrow through Jan. 21; Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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