Washington Post

The Washington Post

October 15, 1995, Sunday, Final Edition


Alone in America

by Robert Coles

EDWARD HOPPER An Intimate Biography

By Gail Levin. Knopf. 678 pp. $ 35

WHEN A full cultural history of 20th-century America is written — no doubt at the start of the third millennium — Edward Hopper will surely command a great deal of attention. Arguably, he will rank as our country’s leading artist of that century — one whose canvases became part of a public consciousness, part of “a whole climate of opinion,” in W.H. Auden’s words, meant to describe the assimilation of another gifted person’s work (that of Freud) into a broad kind of social awareness.Not that Hopper had an easy time of it from the start. Like Freud, he had to endure years of outright rejection, insistent disfavor. Like Freud he had stamina, stubbornness going for him — a refusal to be deterred by the judgment of those who had power. In Austria Freud had to persist in the face of fierce opposition from the university world; in America, Hopper endured dismissal and condescension from any number of art critics and museum curators, who were far more taken with, say, abstract expressionist artists than with his kind of American realism. Both men, it can be said, triumphed through the appeal their work had for a growing army of readers, viewers, rather than through the favor of the intellectual custodians of their respective professions (those who run departments of medicine, those who choose paintings for display, write about them).For many years Gail Levin has devoted her considerable and thoughtful energy to the study of Hopper’s work and life.
She has written essays on his life and presented his work to us in volume after volume — his career as an illustrator, an engraver, an artist whose paintings gradually engaged with the moral and social imagination of so many of us. She is, actually, the one who has given us the definitive presentation of Hopper’s art, the Catalogue Raisonne, and now she is his most ambitious biographer — with the important help of his artist wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper, “Jo” to Hopper (who depicted her in some of his drawings and paintings). Indeed, it is hard to imagine this long, thorough, revealing and quite provocative book without the constant voice of Jo, whose daily diary entries inform page after page — a running chronicle of a great artist’s life, but also, of an exceedingly tempestuous marriage, which lasted and worked, no matter its strenuous strains.Hopper was born in Nyack, N.Y., to a family of modest circumstances. The name is of Dutch origin. All his life he looked up to Rembrandt; both were wizards with “light,” able to use it as an instrument of compelling character analysis. Hopper never attended college — he was yet another American autodidact. He read broadly, deeply; studied with artists in New York; went to Europe as a young man, but thereafter shunned those trans-Atlantic trips so appealing to artists (and others of relative privilege). For a while — for decades, actually — he was a salesman of sorts; he went from magazine to magazine, with his portfolio, in search of assignments as an illustrator. He did so, of course, to make a living — but he never gave up the desire to paint, to be an artist at the beck and call of his own spirit, rather than that of commerce. Even as he did pictures aimed at selling products or helping readers become visually involved with the stories they were reading, he repaired in his heart to his studio, where he struggled with forms and shapes, with pigments, with light and shadows, and not least, with ideas, which he chose to tether to a representational reality.TODAY ANY description of, or response to, his paintings (especially the best-known among them, such as “Nighthawks,” “Early Sunday Morning,” “Office at Night,” “Summer Evening,” “Gas,” “Solitude,” “Hotel Lobby,” “Chop Suey,” “New York Movie,” “Sunlight in a Cafeteria”) has to contend with the heavy weight of a criticism that draws on “existentialism,” or on the dreary banalities generated by a secular preoccupation with psychology and sociology. Yet, there was a time, well before the influence of Camus and Sartre had reached our shores, and well before the social sciences loomed so large on our campuses and beyond, when an obscure painter was merely taking keen, persistent note of how we get along in this hugely materialist, industrial society. Without saying a word, he gave us what he had witnessed, and he, a genius, could singularly convey.Even now, time spent with his pictures can bring fresh meaning to tired words such as “alienation,” “loneliness”; even now, his talent as a painter rescues his work, and us, the beholders of it, from a generation of socially and psychologically labored interpretation. His powerfully suggestive inwardness, his reflective breadth and depth, his disciplined craftsmanship, his restless, sharply knowing interest in a nation, its people, their ways with one another — all of that still offers him a certain immunity from the killing possibilities of cultural attention, whereby someone is “summed up,” and soon enough abandoned for the next objects of fashionable interest. Hopper lingers, survives even critical acclaim. Himself taciturn, a master at rendering the inarticulate, the yearnings and worries we have learned to hide from ourselves, never mind others, he brings us mood and revelation with a pointed intensity that makes a mockery of contemporary psychological, sociological (or religious) language. And there lies the magic of art: to bring us, in the words of Henry James (whose novels he loved) “the manners, the manners” in such a way that we are left free to muse and wonder and make connections on our own.This lucid, almost hovering biography (season after season set down for us) is worthy of its subject, his approach to art. We are denied, here, the temptations of an art criticism all too fluidly, abstractly sure of itself; denied, too, an overwrought, intrusive psychology, ready at the quick, to classify, label, demonize reductively. Wisely, generously, this biographer lets Jo herself present her day-to-day struggles with her mighty, inscrutable, tenaciously determined husband — a continuing, detailed narrative by a protagonist, and at times, an antagonist. For over four decades these two artists lived together, loved and inspired one another, and not least, locked horns. Theirs was the mystery of an attachment that lasted, no matter its serious flaws. All the while, Jo observed him, the artist observer, and described what she saw feverishly, painstakingly, in a torrent of declarations, exclamations, abbreviations, asides. Hers is a diarist’s chronicle that proceeds at a fast clip, now summoned by a biographer able to provide us a context for all those dark nights of a steadfast marriage’s soul: Jo as Edward’s ally, his model, his nagging scold, as watchful of him as he was of everyone else.”Before the problem of the creative artist analysis must, alas, lay down its arms,” Freud volunteered in a self-addressed warning, an unusual moment of resignation (speaking of a biographer’s restraint — he was writing about Dostoevsky). Gail Levin has given us, with obvious erudition and admiration, Hopper the “creative artist” and Hopper the reclusive, cranky, brilliantly thoughtful, impossibly egoistic, highly industrious man, no less limited in mind and heart than the rest of us. A constant wanderer across our American scene (by foot, by train, by automobile), he took our close measure, documented the headlong, sprawling, anxious nature of our early and middle years of this American century; bequeathed us, in his pictures, a landscape of our edgy, worried assertive selves at home, on the road, at work. In this engaging, instructive biography, we meet him and his wife Jo, learn of their emotionally intense time together, follow their careers, and, no small feat on the part of their biographer, are left with respect for those two, respect for what they separately and jointly accomplished — a tribute to them and the one who hands them over to us.

Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist and the author, most recently, of “The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism,” teaches a course at Harvard on Edward Hopper and Raymond Carver.