Defending Edward Hopper

It’s not that Holland Cotter is routinely deranged; the Times art critics wrote a wonderful piece debunking the common myths surrounding Islamic art a while back, and maintains a healthy distrust of the invesstment-fueled “art market” as a driver of real taste and value.

No, Cotter is solid. He did, however, become conspicuously unhinged and scatter his critical parts like some culturally-disjointed Mr. Potato Head all over the Times‘ art section last Friday.

Holland Cotter, it seems, reveres not the accomplishments of Edward Hopper.


Ostensibly, Cotter was criticizing a retrospective at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, but his real target was Hopper’s reputation as a master of American art. Cotter attempts to tear Hopper down, remove that master tag, and relegate him to the dreaded status of “clever.”

To some of us, Hopper was an illustrator from first to last, a just-O.K. brush technician, limited in his themes. His main gift was for narrative paintings with graphic punch and quasi-Modernist additives: Manet touches, de Chirico props. And like any shrewd storyteller, he knew the value of suspense. Reveal just so much of a plot no more. Mystery keeps an audience hanging on.

Get the hint? Hopper was “shrewd” and did a lot with a little talent, by using cinematic suspense; he borrowed the flourishes of others like some velvet-Elvis-painting crafts show salesman moving twenty-dollar units out of the back of his minivan at the flea market. Sniff-sniff, not real art at all.

Cotter is particularly tough on Hopper’s work after he’d seen some success, particularly the paintings he completed in Gloucester and Okunquit, hinting that he was pretty much posing as the bourgeois ideal of the successful painter taking his ease by the sea and in the company of admiring vacationers.

After giving the initial impression of a restless artist who resisted settling into a groove, who might have gone this way or that, comes a long interruption in the form of galleries devoted to a lot of Gloucester watercolors and others done in Ogunquit, Me., through the 1920s.

The show seems to argue that in these pictures of sun-bleached lighthouses and village rooftops Hopper was trying to come to grips with depicting light. In fact, he had already done so a decade earlier in Paris. Anyway, the New England pictures are far from experimental. They’re blandly virtuosic tourist-brochure illustration, Chamber of Commerce Modernism.

Only back from his middle class reverie, does Hopper “toughen up” and show some grit in his urban landscapes, says Cotter.

In the city no distances are respected. Hopper’s eye is everywhere. He peeps through apartment windows, catches people undressed, depressed, lost in thought, just plain lost. He looks over shoulders, down women’s dresses.

Cotter correctly argues that Hopper’s reputation stems from his use of light:

Hopper’s light gave Depression-era Americans, and many others thereafter, a glamorous, even heroic image of themselves as solitary and tragic, persevering, deservedly nostalgic. Some people think he invented this, but he didn’t. American landscape painters were there before him.

That’s right, but I’m tempted to squawk “so what?” Cotter seems grumpy that so many Americans may mistakenly believe that Hopper somehow invented the use of sharp lighting to create that glamorous, heroic image; he’s really attacking their – our – lack of knowledge on the subject.

Don’t we know about Martin Johnson Heade’s Coming Storm, or the Bermuda paintings of Winslow Homer, or the whole, evocative Hudson River School (Cotter mentions Thomas Cole)?

And really, he seems to argue, isn’t the iconic Nighthawks just a little overplayed, the art gallery equivalent of Born to Run? The posters sales, the reproductions, the sheet middle class popularity of Hopper all get under the critic’s skin – like, harumph, Hopper discovered drama in light – the nerve.

Technically, he is a Modernist, but without a drop of Modernism’s utopian rationality, confidence and breadth. He didn’t make a dystopian art, either, one that stakes out an alternative position, as Warhol would do. He went with anxiety and longing, and made them feel-good entertaining, like Hollywood films, which he both influenced and was influenced by.

Often his most ambitious paintings feel Hollywood-fake, overproduced, overwritten. The renowned “Second Story Sunlight” (1960) does. With its Thelma Ritter mother, sunbathing ingénue and light-touched roof peaks, it is a silly, stagy, symbolic affair. You have a sense that the plot, if there is one, isn’t worth wondering about.

Well, give me stagy non-dystopian Edward Hopper – I want the melodrama, not the brushwork, Mr. Cotter. Yes, it’s gauche that Turner Classic Movies runs animated clips based on Hopper paintings before cueing up its old school movies. Yes, he gave Alfred Hitchcock ideas on composition. Get over it.

Particularly tone deaf is Cotter’s excoriation of Hopper’s Gloucester paintings. To this day, Hopper remains a presence in the hardscrabble fishing port on Cape Ann (a wonderful place to spend some time) and his obsession with vernacular architecture remains fascinating to both locals and visitors. Greg Cook gets it right in his Boston Phoenix review, I think:

Hopper has a new Yankee sobriety and austerity. It’s as if Gloucester’s crisp clear North Atlantic light had knocked the fuzzy fussy Frenchness out of him.His 1920s Gloucester watercolors will be a revelation to those who know him only from his lonely urban dramas. Coming out of the gritty realism of Ashcan School painting, Hopper frankly examines Gloucester’s tired buildings, trains, and fishing boats  sights generally considered hideous at the time. People are absent. Buildings are often dramatically cropped in a way that suggests the influence of photography. But what electrifies these scenes and fills them with nostalgia is the light. Hopper favors what filmmakers call the “magic hour” when the sun is low in the sky at the start and the end of the day, spotlighting parts of the landscape with warm golden rays and throwing the rest into dramatic shadow.

So cinematic, the brilliance of Edward Hopper. He really was a master, and is deserving of his enduring popularity. You see, Mr. Cotter, he had this thing with light…