EDITORIAL FEATURE

10 Things You May Not Know About Edward Hopper

A closer look at the iconic American artist


Picture a lonely New York diner at night... Chances are you just imagined a scene reminiscent of one of the most famous paintings of all time: Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper.

Nighthawks, 1942, by Edward Hopper (Collection: The Art Institute of Chicago)

But how much do you really know about the man behind the iconic image?

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is generally considered the foremost realist painter of 20th-century America. Though Hopper also worked in etching and watercolor, he is best known for his oil paintings, which often convey a sense of melancholy or isolation. Hopper studied formally, but was not initially successful as an artist; for years he made ends meet with freelance illustration work, including designing movie posters. But by the early 1930s, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art were vying to purchase his work.

Read on to discover more about one of the most influential artists of the 20th century...

1. A New Yorker, through and through

Edward Hopper was born in 1882 in Nyack, New York. In 1913, at age 31, he took an apartment in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He lived there, at 3 Washington Square North, until his death in 1967.

Greenwich Village, in Manhattan, where Edward Hopper lived.

2. Artistic beginnings

From 1900 to 1906, Hopper studied at the New York School of Art (which later became the Parsons School of Design). He was a pupil of the school’s founder, the American Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase.

Idle Hours, 1894, by William Merritt Chase (Collection: Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

3. O’Keefe connection

What formative influence does Edward Hopper share with artist Georgia O’Keeffe? Like Hopper, O’Keeffe was a pupil of William Merritt Chase (though unlike Hopper, O’Keeffe studied with him at the Art Students League in New York).

Red Cannas by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1927. (Collection: Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Texas.)

4. Taking inspiration from the Ashcan

Hopper also studied with American painter Robert Henri. Henri was a leading member of the so-called Ashcan School, an unofficial movement of early-20th-century realist artists who rejected both academic realism and American Impressionism. Henri was also one of “The Eight,” a group of artists who in 1908 held an exhibition in New York to challenge the influence of the National Academy of Design.

Fun fact: The young art student in this 1906 portrait by Henri is none other than Josephine Nivison— the future wife of Edward Hopper.

The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison) by Robert Henri, 1906. (Collection: Milwaukee Art Museum.)

5. Faves and foes

After finishing his studies, Hopper went to Europe, visiting Paris and other European locales three times between 1906 and 1910. Hopper was greatly inspired by the work of French masters Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet, but contemporary movements like Cubism and Fauvism left him cold. In 1907, Pablo Picasso shocked the art world with his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. But for Hopper, the groundbreaking work didn’t even register. He later said of that period, “I don’t remember having heard of Picasso at all.”

Melancholy Woman by Pablo Picasso, 1902. (Collection: Detroit Institute of Arts)

6. Watching The Night Watch

If Picasso was a blank for Hopper, he was very impressed by Rembrandt van Rijn’s 1642 painting The Night Watch, which he saw at the Rijksmuseum while visiting Amsterdam. It’s “the most wonderful thing of his I have seen, it's past belief in its reality--it almost amounts to deception", Hopper said of the Dutch masterpiece.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642. (Collection: Rijksmuseum)

7. Where writing meets art

Hopper was also particularly inspired by the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century American writer and philosopher. Some critics see an Emersonian influence in Hopper’s Notes on Painting, from 1933.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1862 (Collection: LIFE Photo Collection)

8. A model love

In 1924 Hopper married Josephine Nivison. Like Hopper, Nivison was an artist and had studied at the New York School of Art. Both were 41 when they wed, and they remained together for the rest of their lives. The couple’s 43-year marriage was by all accounts both hermetic and highly volatile. For the rest of his career, Hopper used Nivison as the model for nearly all of his female figures. Nivison also kept detailed notes on her husband’s works, sales and shows.

After Hopper’s death, Nivison donated the couple’s massive art collection – some 3,000 works – to the Whitney Museum of American Art. She died less than a year after her husband.

Artist Hopper And Wife by Bernard Hoffman, 1937. (Collection: LIFE Photo Collection)

9. Finding fame

In 1930, Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad (1925) became the first painting to be acquired by the brand-new Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hopper’s first large-scale retrospective was also held there, in 1933.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

10. Hemingway, to Van Gogh, to Hopper

Hopper painted Nighthawks, his most famous work, in 1942. According to biographer Gail Levin, one inspiration for the painting was Ernest Hemingway's short story The Killers, which Hopper had read over a decade earlier. Further inspiration may have come from Van Gogh’s Night Café, which, as it happened, was on display in New York in January 1942.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. (Collection: The Art Institute of Chicago)

Hopper returned again and again to scenes of everyday 20th-century American life, painting figures in familiar environments— in offices, apartments or on the road. Though Hopper shrugged off deeper psychological interpretations of his art, a mood of loneliness and regret pervades most of his paintings, particularly those of single figures or couples. Hopper’s work had an enormous impact on both popular culture and the art world. Painters Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning called him an influence, and it is no accident that Hopper’s often-cinematic compositions inspired many filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock.

Continue exploring Hopper's life and work here.

By Rebecca Appel
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