Art Markets: Celebrating Hopper

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) remains one of America’s most celebrated 20th century artists. Unlike many modern painters respected by academics, Hopper is also beloved by the public and is an enduring influence on popular culture. Homages to Hopper’s work, especially his classic Nighthawks (1942), continue to turn up in advertising, movies and music.

The legacy of Hopper has been insured by his intriguing images, which resolutely refuse to reveal their meaning. He was a Realist and a master of understatement. His scenes are instantly recognizable but open to endless interpretation. What are the lonesome figures of Nighthawks thinking about and where are they off to after finishing their 2 a.m. cup of coffee? Mystery and melancholy are encoded into virtually all of Hopper’s paintings.hopper AT 4-16.jpg

Hopper’s classic and enigmatic Nighthawks is an enduring and mysterious image, open to many interpretations.

Hopper was among the first American artists honored by a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (1933) and is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, which runs through May 18. The Chicago exhibit includes many characteristic Hopper artworks, including 90 paintings and prints from his productive years in the 1930s and 1940s, which have lost none of their power to engage the imagination of viewers.

Like many American artists of his era Hopper enjoyed a sojourn in Paris (1906), the mecca of the art world. Although he was present at the rise of Modernism, Hopper viewed most avant-garde movements with disdain. He was committed to Realism and although he resented all efforts to label his work, his paintings sprang from the gritty urban settings of the Ashcan School. For many years Hopper earned a living as an etcher and illustrator, winning a prize for a World War I propaganda poster, Smashing the Hun. He remained essentially an illustrator through his career as a visual artist, although the scenes he illustrated were resolutely enigmatic.

Unlike commercial artists whose mission is to communicate specific messages, Hopper’s paintings are about lack of communication. When his figures aren’t solitary but in pairs or groups, they are usually not in eye contact with each other, distracted by unseen occurrences beyond the frame of their paintings or buried in their own thoughts. They are alone, even in the midst of New York City. Hopper had a greater affinity with photography and film than with most of the painters of his time. He was an avid moviegoer and his images influenced movies in turn. Humphrey Bogart’s The Killers (1946) was set in a diner modeled after Nighthawks. The famous Victorian Gothic house of many secrets in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was a replica of Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925).

Many of Hopper’s subjects of buildings and bluffs, streets and bridges can be glimpsed in Gail Levin’s book Hopper’s Places, a study of the artist’s works with photographs of the real buildings and locales compared beside the Hopper rendering of the scene. Levin also produced Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonne for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In Places, she reveals the magic of Hopper’s skill. For example, her photograph of an ordinary beach scene in Cape Cod displayed in contrast to Hopper’s painting of the same vista, Mouth of the Pamet River–Fall Tide (1937), reveals a provocative vision of stunning simplicity and endless interpretation.

Even during his lifetime Hopper’s paintings were eagerly sought by museums and after his death, private collectors have bequeathed many more to institutions. Nighthawks will not turn up on an auction list, nor will most of his other best-known images. Some watercolors by the prolific artist do come up for sale, but his drawings and etchings are more readily available at less-than-millionaire prices. Just this February, Christie’s in London auctioned a fine early etching, Evening Wind (1921), an enigmatically erotic sketch of a nude woman before an open window, for $117,732 (with buyer’s premium).

Other etchings have been offered at prices within reach of many collectors. With a title that for once in Hopper’s oeuvre describes all there is to see, The Bay Window, executed sometime during the World War I era, was sold at a 2006 auction at Sotheby’s New York for only $19,000 (with buyer’s premium). Even more promising for the buyer on a budget is the listing for a far more engaging image. Night Shadows (1921), a foretaste of film noir whose diminutive pedestrian, seen as if from an overhead camera, casts a short shadow and is dwarfed by mammoth buildings lining his nocturnal thoroughfare, went for only $9,000 (with buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s in 2001.

Hopper traveled around the United States and Mexico. In addition to New York and its environs, Hopper’s paintings include places up and down the Eastern Seaboard and observations in historic Gettysburg, the only history canvasses he produced. Curiously, Hopper was not easily inspired by the landscape of the American Southwest, finding the light intense and the mountains “gaudy” and too picturesque for him to paint. He occasionally painted images from his travels west.

The watercolor on paper, Mount Moran (1946), is consistent with his indifferent response to the West. More pictorial and illustrative and less likely to provoke mystery, Hopper’s rendering of the snow-capped Wyoming mountain range is nonetheless well done. In November 2001, the watercolor sold at Christie’s New York for $450,000 (including buyer’s premium), a remarkable sum for a painter whose primary source of inspiration was to be found more in rooftops than mountain peaks.

Paintings are a pricier proposition. Hotel Window (1955), an oil on canvas, sold for a staggering $24 million (including buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s New York in 2006. It is classic Hopper as a distracted woman in a red dress gazes distractedly at the blank face of the city at night through the window of her sparsely furnished, impersonal hotel room.

Hopper, who lived in a modest fourth-floor walk-up overlooking Washington Square from his salad days through his death in 1967, may have found the dollar value his work commands nowadays to be incomprehensible.