Drawing the Line: The Sketches and Scribblings of Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on Canvas, Institue of Chicago, 1942, Photography © The Art Institute of ChicagoEdward Hopper makes even the inanimate human. Rectangular blocks of sunlight cast on interior walls, the trellised porch of a rooming house, a city block of closed stores, an unpaved road bordered by pines, red gas pumps—all become not just objects on canvas, but ones with character. They are almost as expressive as the human entities he renders—those lonely, sometimes naked, figures we have come to know, who sit on the edge of a bed or toil at a desk late at night in offices, who sip coffee in an all-night diner or sunbathe on a porch deck. To tour the “Hopper Drawing” show at New York’s Whitney Museum of Art (May 23–October 6, 2013) was to see the person who made these works and the very human decisions that went into their creation. We see the actual processes—the first moments of inspiration—of many of Hopper’s (1882–1967) best-known paintings.

To prove the point, a particularly poignant detail in the show  was  the actual easel with which Hopper worked. He built the apparatus in 1924 and positioned every one of his major paintings on it until he died in 1967. For the show, the easel was set with the unframed Early Sunday Morning (1930), that famous block-long expanse of sun-washed brick storefronts, the sidewalk populated only by a barber pole and a fire hydrant. We learned that the work was painted at Hopper’s Greenwich Village studio at 3 Washington Square North and that the actual locale of the storefronts was at 88 Seventh Avenue, a row that was torn down in 1939 and replaced with an Art Deco apartment house.

The show, organized by the Whitney’s curator of drawings, Carter E. Foster, was conveniently arranged by themes, such as Hopper in Paris. Some focused on single namesake works, which include The Road, The Bedroom, New York Movie and Rooms for Tourists. Rendered often in chalk, charcoal or crayon on paper, the numerous sketches (the museum was bequeathed 2,500 such works by the painter’s widow, Josephine Hopper) function almost like animation cels, in that we see the gradual movement toward the finished work; the plot of the painting unfolds for the viewer. In Nighthawks (1942), for instance, Hopper’s now-iconic depiction of film noirish-like figures seated inside an all-night coffee shop, we saw the lead-ups to the finished painting (on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago)—his  renderings  of  the  men’s  hat  brims, the curved glass window of the establishment, the counter with and without figures on stools, all the nuances of the figures, from the way they finger a cigarette to the creases in their suits.Edward Hopper, Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942, fabricated chalk on paper. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

In one of the most popular moments in the show, a map with photos that revealed some of the locales for his New York paintings, we learn that those nighthawks were  ensconced  in  a  coffee  shop  inspired,  in  part,  by  a  wedge-shaped space that is still appended to the Flatiron Building. Hopper was very much a resident of the city (as well as Maine) who prefered, it seems, to render its lonelier current: the usher standing alone in a nearly empty movie house, the sad façades of tenements from the gritty vantages of the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges, weary figures descending New York stoops, workers toiling amid filing cabinets in viewless offices.

Hopper lived in Paris, too, for nearly a year, in 1909, but even there, the city is rendered in an often melancholy cast. There is the clown figure eating alone in Soir Bleu (1914), hints of whom appear in sketchbook pages of Parisian figures. In his achingly lovely Le Bistro or The Wine Shop (1909), figures huddle at a small table as a strong wind bends, almost ominously, a group of distant cypresses. Yet he also captured the city’s gaiety in his watercolor and graphite-pencil renderings, including French Woman with Basket (1906–07), Parisian with Wine Bottle and Loaf of Bread (1906–07), Waiter and Diners (1906–07) and others that are, at once, caricatures and realistic fashion plates.

Edward Hopper, Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942, fabricated chalk or charcoal on paper, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York CityWhy do we need to see the sketches and drawings, scribblings and doodles that came before the finished paintings? Why is that important? In this endlessly fascinating show, Hopper’s drawings were every bit as vigorous and painterly as the finished pieces—which is not always a common dynamic with drawings, a medium or stage of work that many viewers find secondary, less compelling. Here, too, we see the mechanics of the works. Hopper is working out the actual, practical architecture of a café or dormer of a frame house, the precise angles that light will fall on walls at certain times of day, how much of a townscape might be visible through a windshield. We see how the practical becomes poetic in the finished product. The isolation of his people and buildings came into relief. To get to the poetry, he needed to work with a practical vocabulary.

This answers that ongoing question of whether an artist even  needs  to know how to draw. Absent that ability—or even the interest in doing so—an artist is likely unable to reach a point of meaning. If he or she cannot draw in a realistic manner, then the only scene able to be rendered is one that is abstract or skewed to the point of obscurity. Piet Mondrian, for instance, was an expert draftsman, whose style later morphed into a kind of minimalist geometric abstraction, but that shift was his choice.

Hopper knew how to draw. The walls at the Whitney revealed this. A thick, blunt line of pencil on a piece of paper and we already see the hint of an entire building, or the brim of a hat and the face of its wearer, an assemblage of farm buildings on a rural Massachusetts route. These drawings suggest something larger, while also being finished masterpieces unto themselves.

“Hopper Drawing” seems the perfect title for this show, for the very phrasing can be read two ways. As an active verbal phrase, we see the man himself doing that actual activity; when read as a statement, we see what resulted, and those works continue to animate us. The show catalogue, Hopper Drawing by Carter E. Foster, is the first comprehensive study of the subject and includes contributions  by  Daniel  S.  Palmer,  Nicholas  Robbins,  Kimia  Shahi  and  Mark W.  Turner.  There  are  386  color  illustrations  (distributed  by  Yale  University Press, hardback $60). This exhibition travels to the Dallas Museum of Art, November 17, 2013-February 16, 2014, 1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas, TX 75201. Telephone (214) 922-1200.

 American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2013, Volume 30, Number 4