Step into the shadows

Edward Hopper’s canvases depict a bleak, but enticing world that has inspired two generations of creative minds, says John Cooper

Edward Hopper made a profound impact on America’s cultural landscape. Take the first painting he ever sold, in 1925. Entitled House by the Railroad, those that are more film than art buffs will immediately spot the similarity between this dwelling and Norman Bates’ residence in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror movie, Psycho.

Hitchcock is not alone in his admiration for Hopper’s work. Two generations of film-makers later, Todd Haynes explained: ‘As I learn more as a film-maker I realise that it is often what you don’t say – the restrained suggestion of dramatic narrative behind a blank, still canvas – that has the most effect and that is what Hopper is so good at.’

Now all of us have a chance to see Hopper’s work, in the first major British exhibition of his work for more than 20 years, held at Tate Modern. Haynes is eminently qualified to present a series of films that reveal the relationship between Hopper and the movies. His film about the sordid underbelly of the 1950s American Dream, Far from Heaven, has the kind of subtle dramatic tension that was a hallmark of Hopper’s work.

In the early 1900s Hopper studied under Robert Henri at the New York School of Art, who advised him to visit Paris. Hopper’s homecoming in 1913 was a big adjustment. ‘[The US] seemed awfully crude and raw when I got back,’ he said. ‘It took me ten years to get over Europe.’

The next 23 years were barren for Hopper: he sold only two paintings, supporting himself with commercial illustration, which he hated, claiming, ‘I was a rotten illustrator – or mediocre, anyway.’

Eleven am (1926), showing a naked woman staring listlessly out of a window, reveals melancholy in Hopper’s work. He claimed ‘the loneliness thing is overdone’, but Maeve Polkinhorn, assistant curator of the Tate, identifies a detached quality.

‘There is an interiority about his figures that does not necessarily denote an unhappy state, but may rather depict a distance from the world, an unwillingness to engage, even a kind of rejection of modern life,’ she explains. Hopper himself claimed that, ‘My aim in painting is always, using nature as the medium, to try to project upon canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears when I like it most.’

It is this lyrical quality – Hopper’s work documented the lives of introspective misfits and the ambiguous nature of the scenes invites the viewer to interpret them in their own way – that would make him such a favourite with individualistic mavericks, from Hitchcock to author Norman Mailer. By 1924 Hopper’s fortunes had changed: his exhibition at the Frank Rehn gallery in New York sold out so fast that it took over a decade to accumulate enough work for another show.

In 1948 Time magazine said Hopper’s paintings resembled ‘idealised reality’. But his work wasn’t stylised. He was merely fastidious about what he painted, explaining that ‘I spend many days before I find a subject that I like well enough to do’. Early Sunday Morning (1930) a deserted street scene, shows the rising sun casting long shadows; there are no crowds or traffic to obscure the architecture of a block of terraced houses. Hopper draws you into his serene, geometric world of light and darkness, aptly described as ‘architectural Americana’.

Modern urban life is too hectic and overpopulated, littered with billboards and other visual noise to resemble the pared-down quality of a Hopper painting, but those fleeting moments when the afternoon sun hits a Victorian terrace just so will always provide respite from all the hustle and bustle.

Edward Hopper’s work is showing at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 from 27 May – 5 September. Tel: 020 7887 8008

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