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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Discover the rise of Edward Hopper to become one of the most famous painters of the 20th century in this extensive biography.

Edward Hopper (1882 - 1967) designed sombre and exceptional portraits of modern life in America. He is recognised for this Nighthawks painting, where he portrayed desolate urban scenes and the not-so-good rural landscapes. Edward's oil paintings, sketches, etchings and watercolours depicted a sense of human detachment. By restraining himself against the prevailing trend towards abstract expressionism, Hopper became America’s best realist of the 20th century.

Hopper's Childhood Life

Edward Hopper was born in a middle-class and comfortable family on July 22, 1882, in Upper Nyack, New York. Alongside Marion, his elder sister, they grew in a comfy Victorian house on a beautiful hill overlooking River Hudson. His parents were skilled and involved in the world of arts. So, the family attended concerts, cultural events and even visited museums.

As a kid, Edward drew sketched boats and political cartoons he came across in the local port. Hopper's first signed drawing is Rowboat in Rocky Cove, which he painted in 1895. Due to their practical-minded and supportive nature, Edward’s parents advised him to chase a career that would assure a stable income. Due to his love for drawing and boats, Edward Hopper opted for a career in naval architecture. Still, he was more into colour and light than engineering. In fact, he desired to draw old houses and nautical vistas alongside River Hudson.

One of his memorable and best drawing is founded on a familiar setting in Haverstraw, New York, situated a couple of miles from his childhood residence. Skewed perspective and eerie lighting give the House by the Railroad painting an incredible air of menacing. Finished in 1925, the House by the Railroad was the first painting that the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired. The drawing later stirred the set design for Alfred Hitchcock's terrifying Psycho Movie in 1960.

Education and Influences

After graduating from Nyack public high school in 1899, his parents recommended he takes a commercial illustration course instead of fine art. Subsequently, he spent a whole year in Manhattan at the New York school of illustration before moving to the more serious New York School of Art to accomplish his childhood dream. Edward Hopper was enrolled at the New York School of Art from 1900 to 1906 and it was at this point that the young student started to be exposed to all manner of artistic influences. Hopper's spell in central New York was where his inspiration from normal, everyday life was to begin.

It is perhaps thanks to the artist's teachers in the School of Art that he was to choose the artistic style that he did. This approach to capturing individuals in rural settings would never leave his work, even when American art saw the rise of Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

While at the New York School of Art, he studied commercial art as advised by his parents. At the same time, he sharpened his skills as a professional painter. Some of his famous classmates include the skilled realists Rockwell Kent, George Bellows and Guy Pène du Bois.

His able teachers included William Merritt Chase and Kenneth Hayes Miller. The best thing about these teachers is that they used traditional realism methodology to portray everyday settings. Above all, Edward became Robert Henri's student. At the time, Robert was the leader at the Ashcan School. As a person who believed that artists need to show the harsh and extreme conditions that the poor lived in, Henri promoted a bold urban realism.

Edward finished his formal education in 1906. Customarily, art students made trips to Europe and worked part time to paint illustrations for marketing purposes, which is exactly what Edward did over the next four years. Although he visited many countries in Europe, Hopper spent most of his time in the city of Paris. During this period, there was a high rise in post impression. So, there was an increase in new trends like Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and Fauvism. Nonetheless, Edward showed no interest in new trends. As a matter of fact, he did not interact with modern artists and didn't enrol in any class. In its place, Edward painted scenic views and read French literature.

The scenic views he painted were inspired by the previous artists, such as Goya and the 19th-century impressionist Degas and Manet. His early works, such as the House with People, The Louvre in a Thunderstorm, Summer Interior and the El Station, reflects Edward's training in urban realism. The relaces brushstrokes, on the other hand, portrays a worrying moment without sentimentality and judgement. Notably, his very last trip to Europe was in 1910.

Early Career

After returning to the United States from his last trip to Europe, Edward permanently relocated to New York City and settled at Washington Square North in 1913. This place turned out to be his studio and home for the rest of his life. In 1913, his first drawing, the Sailing (1911), was bought for $250 at the famous Armory show in New York City. While Edward did not stop the painting job, it would take him 11 years to sell another drawing.

Throughout this time, he continued to make money through illustrating. In 1915, he jumped into printmaking and designed some 70 drypoints and etchings over the next ten years. Just like the drawings, which we all recognise him for, Edward's etchings exemplify a sense of melancholy and alienation.

One of his famous etchings, the Night Shadows (1921), consists of a birds-eye viewpoint. His theatrical use of light and shadow and the air of mystery made him an inspiration for countless film noir movies in the 1940s. Edward continued to get incredible acclaim for his etchings over the years. Certainly, he considered the etchings as a crucial part and parcel of his artistic development. According to Edward Hopper, his drawing seemed to crystallise after transitioning to etching.

His Late Years

Edward continued on his works throughout the war years and even remained unshaken by the threats caused by the Pearl Harbour attack. During this era, he even worked on his popular painting, the Nighthawks (1942). In the period between the 1950s and the early 1960s, he continued to enjoy success and acclaim, notwithstanding the arrival of minimalism, Pop and Abstract Expressionism to the New York art set. The global appeal of his work continued to receive an avid audience.

It's worth noting that Edward was not a prolific painter as he regularly found it difficult to settle on the perfect subject to paint. Additionally, he spent much of his time working out the minor details of the composition through many studies. Perhaps this is the main reason he only painted two pictures a year. Edward breathed his last on May 15, 1967. His sister, Jo Hopper, died ten months after his death, leaving their artistic estate to the able hands of the Whitney Museum of the America Art. He was buried alongside his sister and parents in the Nyack Oak Hill Cemetery.

Edward Hopper's Legacy

Edward has inspired a whole generation of photographers, painters, set designers, filmmakers, writers, dancers and musicians. Today, the term 'Hopperesque' is extensively used to imply the remaining images of Edward's subjects and moods. In the visual arts industry, his influence has empowered artists in a wide range of media, such as Tony Oursler, Mark Rothko, Ed Ruscha, Banksy and George Sega.

According to Eric Fischl, a famous painter, it's possible to tell how great painters are by checking how long it takes to go through their territories. Currently, artists are still in the territory opened by Edward Hopper. On the other hand, Richard Diebenkorn recalls the significance of Edward's impact on his works. According to Richard, he embraced Hopper’s work wholly. Richard denotes that Edward’s use of the atmosphere, light and shade has made a tremendous impact on his works.

The list of artists inspired by Edward Hopper is endless. He inspired some famous photographers like Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore and Lee Friedlander. Jeffrey Fraenkel says that virtually all American artists have acquired one or two things from Edward Hopper. Additionally, Edward has an amazing impact on the cinema world.

Many generations of filmmakers have acquired their inspirations from his dramatic lighting, viewpoints, and general moods. Well, these filmmakers include David Lynch, Sam Mendes, Orson Welles, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Wim Wenders. In fact, Edward’s painting, the House by the Railroad (1925), inspired the production of Alfred Hitchcock's (1960) movie.