Modern art for modern cities
House at dusk 1935
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, John Barton Payne Fund © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: Katherine Wetzel
Issues for discussion
At what vantage point is the viewer observing this scene? How does this add to the meaning of the work? With reference to the figure in this painting, describe how Hopper has captured a sense of isolation and loneliness. In your opinion, is this a typical example of a modernist view of the city or is Hopper suggesting something else?
Edward Hopper began his career as a commercial illustrator, studying first through the Correspondence School of Illustrating, New York and continuing with illustration at the New York School of Art. He trained under Arthur Keller, Frank Vincent DuMond, Kenneth Hayes Miller and Robert Henri. In 1906 Hopper travelled to Europe, spending a number of months in Paris where he visited museums and galleries and maintained a painting practice out of a makeshift studio. After his return to New York in 1907 Hopper exhibited in a group show organised by a former teacher. Hopper worked for many years as an illustrator, an occupation he detested, exhibiting paintings and etchings. He participated in the Armory Show of 1913, which resulted in his first sale. In 1920 the Whitney Studio Club held Hopper’s first one-person show. In 1924 the commercial Frank KM Rehn Gallery held his second show; its success earned Hopper permanent representation and he remained with the gallery for the entirety of his career. In 1934 Hopper and his wife built a house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts; the Cape Cod coastline was the subject of many of his paintings during this period. However, it is for his depictions of urban life that Hopper is best known, notably the iconic Nighthawks 1942, a moody nightscape of an all-night diner. Retrospectives of the artist’s work were held in New York at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum before his death.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts website
In the early decades of the 20th century, artists embraced both modern art and modern America. As the urban population overtook the rural, artists working in the realist tradition explored the crowded streets and neighbourhoods of the city. Influenced by left-wing and reformist politics of the Progressive era, they declared themselves independent, critical observers of American society.
Travel to Europe gave many artists first-hand knowledge of the modernist avant-garde. Fauvist colour, futurist dynamism and cubist geometry were used to explore the thrilling spectacle and disorienting spaces of the modern city. Artists’ interest in regional landscape and small-town life remained strong, but these places were now shaped by industry and technology.
Fascinated with both local traditions and their nation’s growing global political and economic power, American artists reflected philosopher John Dewey’s opinion that ‘locality is the only universal’.