Art,  Museums

Christmas in New York City at The Whitney & The Met

The Whitney Museum of American Art has featured the art of Edward Hopper (1882 — 1967) in more of its exhibitions than any other artist, and deservedly so. If you have not had the opportunity to explore in depth the Whitney’s space at 99 Gansevoort Street, in the Renzo Piano building which opened on May 1, 2015 in New York City, then the current temporary show “Edward Hopper’s New York” provides the ideal motivation for you to plan a visit before this landmark exhibition closes on March 5, 2023.

New York City Streets from 1913 to 1930

New York City, The City, Hopper
The City, 1927

Hopper’s 1927 painting “The City” shows the block of red brick-faced rowhouses along the edge of Washington Square Park where the artist lived and worked in the same apartment & studio from 1913 until his death in 1967.

“Early Sunday Morning” (originally titled “7th Avenue Shops”) also represents a row of ordinary buildings in the West Village of Manhattan, a short distance from the painter’s home. When Hopper painted “Early Sunday Morning” (below) in 1930, New York City was in the throes of the Great Depression and, simultaneously, announcing the completion of the Chrysler Building (the world’s tallest at that time). Hopper perfectly captures this paradoxical moment in the history of New York by focusing the viewer’s attention on seemingly vacant, lifeless buildings — presented frontally with a stark flatness, under greyish-blue skies — as if the buildings are expressing an eerie, psychological quality.

New York City, Early Sunday Morning, Hopper
Early Sunday Morning, 1930

You will notice that “The City” offers diverse architectural styles from Greek Revival to the Gilded Age. “The City” and “Early Sunday Morning” imply the dramatic changes to come in New York with skyscrapers rising almost imperceptibly in the upper right corner on both canvases — Edward Hopper’s way of expressing a nostalgic nod to the past and a factual nod to the future.

Within the enigmatic world of Hopper, the complex is often expressed simply, and what appears most direct and simple is often complex.

New York City Drawing Hopper
New York City Corner Hopper
New York Corner (Corner Saloon), 1913
Study for From Williamsburg Bridge Hopper, New York City
Study for From Williamsburg Bridge, 1928
New York City Hopper, Self Portrait
Self-Portrait, 1903-06

“After I took up etching, my painting seemed to crystallize.” Edward Hopper

At age 17, Hopper declared his intention to pursue a career as an artist, but respected the advice of his parents and studied commercial art as an illustrator to have a reliable source of income. He commuted from his family’s home north of the city to attend the New York School of Illustration and then the New York School of Art (the forerunner of Parsons School of Design) where he studied for six years. His teachers included William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri.

Hopper created cover designs for trade magazines when he landed a job at age 23 at a Manhattan advertising agency. From 1906 to 1910, Hopper made three trips to Europe where he showed special interest in the depictions of modern urban life by Manet and Degas. He reluctantly returned to illustrating and in 1915 took up printmaking. Hopper would go on to produce about 70 etchings (many of urban scenes in Paris and New York embodied with a sense of melancholy and alienation) which would bring him some acclaim over the next decade and served as an essential part of his artistic development. Hopper sold his first painting in 1913, but it would be 11 years before he sold another painting.

The influence of the Impressionists he admired in Paris led Hopper to the streets of New York City throughout his life — to sketch en plein air or, as Hopper described this practice, to draw and paint “from the fact.”

New York City Hopper
New York City Pavements, Hopper
New York Pavements, 1924-25
Manhattan Bridge Loop, New York City, Hopper
Manhattan Bridge Loop, 1928
Drug Store, New York City, Hopper
Drug Store, 1927

Modern City Life: Aloneness & Isolation in New York City

Automat, New York City, Hopper
Automat, 1927
Drawing, New York City, Hopper
Washington Square, New York City, Hopper
November, Washington Square, 1932/1959
Intermission New York City, Hopper
Intermission, 1963
Morning in the City, New York City, Hopper
Morning in the City, 1944
Office in a Small City, New York City, Hopper
Office in a Small City, 1953
City Sunlight, New York City, Hopper
City Sunlight, 1954
Room in Brooklyn, New York City, Hopper
Room in Brooklyn, 1932

Edward Hopper’s Interest in the Rooftops of New York City

Skyline near Washington Square, New York City, Hopper
Skyline near Washington Square, 1925
City Roofs, New York City, Hopper
City Roofs, 1932

The repetitive geometries seen from the rooftops of New York captured Hopper’s imagination, inspiring many watercolors. In “City Roofs” (above) — the only oil painting the artist made from this vantage — Hopper focused on a 27-story apartment building at One Fifth Avenue which made headlines during its construction five years earlier when it became one of the first modernist highrises built in Hopper’s beloved neighborhood of rowhouses. It was not social commentary or nostalgia, however, that guided Hopper’s compositions. This great painter was interested in light, shadow, and mood.

Hopper’s lines, shapes and diagonals were carefully constructed throughout his body of work, and the viewpoint he chose was cinematic. Carol Troyen, the writer and art curator, once observed, “Hopper really liked the way these houses, with their turrets and towers and porches and mansard roofs and ornament, cast wonderful shadows. Hopper always said that his favorite thing was painting sunlight on the side of a house.”

Nighthawks, New York City, Hopper
Nighthawks, 1942, from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago is not on view in New York

Like a cinematographer, Hopper was often particular about the source of light within his paintings. In his famous “Nighthawks” (above), for example, the electric light inside the diner is harsh; the sharp contrast with the dark of night outside enhances the mood. “Nighthawks” may have been inspired by “The Killers” — the Hemingway short story that Hopper admired — which would best explain the chosen title. Later in life, Edward Hopper said that “Nighthawks” has more to do with the possibility of predators in the night than with loneliness.

Generations of artists from different mediums have drawn inspiration from the moods, lighting, dramatic viewpoints, and the overall sense of mystery that oozed from Hopper’s paintbrush. Richard Diebenkorn spoke of Hopper’s influence on his work when he was a student: “I embraced Hopper completely … It was his use of light and shade and the atmosphere … kind of drenched, saturated with mood, and its kind of austerity … It was the kind of work that just seemed made for me. I looked at it and it was mine.”

In addition, Hopper inspired photographers including Diane Arbus, Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander, and filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and David Lynch. The house in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho” as well as Terrence Malick’s mansion in “Days of Heaven” were inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad” (1925).

Rooftops, New York City, Hopper
Rooftops, 1926
My Roof, New York City, Hopper
My Roof, 1928
Roofs of Washington Square, New York City, Hopper
Roofs of Washington Square, 1926

Maturity & Success

Hopper summered in the State of Maine nine times. On one watercolor painting trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1923 he became reacquainted with Josephine (Jo) Nivison, an art student of Robert Henri. Later that year, Jo encouraged the reticent Hopper to join her in participating in a show at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. The Museum purchased “The Mansard Roof” by Hopper for $100. In 1924 Hopper married Jo Nivison, had continued success selling watercolors and finally gave up illustrating. Hopper’s 1927 painting “Two on the Aisle” sold for $1,500, enabling the Hoppers to purchase a car which the couple used to travel across the USA, to Mexico (where they painted watercolors side by side) and to coastal New England.

Two on the Aisle, New York City, Hopper
Two on the Aisle, 1927

You will notice that Hopper chose not to focus on the stage production in “Two on the Aisle” (above), and instead turned his attention to a nearly empty corner of the theater before the main event. Despite the Great Depression, the early 1930s marked a period of great success for Hopper. In 1931 alone, Hopper sold 30 paintings to major institutions, including in New York City to The Whitney and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first large-scale retrospective was given to Hopper by the Museum of Modern Art in 1933.

Nightlife: Theaters & Restaurants

The Sheridan Theatre, New York City, Hopper
The Sheridan Theatre, 1937

Despite the commercial successes, Jo and Edward Hopper preferred a frugal lifestyle, and their favorite indulgence was attending theatre and the cinema. Edward Hopper was an avid reader and particularly loved going to see films. “When I don’t feel in the mood for painting, I go to the movies for a week or more. I go on a regular movie binge,” he said.

Early in their marriage the Hoppers spent summers painting in New England, mostly in Gloucester and coastal Maine. Beginning in 1934, they began spending summers at a house and studio Hopper designed for them in South Truro on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

New York City Movie, Hopper
New York Movie, 1939
Sunlight in a Cafeteria New York City, Hopper
Sunlight in a Cafeteria, 1958
Drawing New York City, Hopper
New York City Restaurant, Hopper
New York Restaurant, 1922

Journeying from Home to the Office — A Day in the Life of New Yorkers

August in the City New York City, Hopper
August in the City, 1945
Morning Sun, New York City, Hopper
Morning Sun, 1952
The El Station, New York City, Hopper
The El Station, 1908
Chair Car, 1965
New York Office, 1962
Sunlight on Brownstones, 1956
Office at Night, 1940

As in many Hopper paintings, the action is minimal in “Office at Night” (above). Hopper drew several studies for this painting which indicate that he experimented with the positioning of the two figures. The sensual undercurrent is palpable to the viewer, even if the viewer is left with several possibilities as to what “the couple” of coworkers may be feeling or hiding.

The positioning of the two individuals and the three sources of light conceived by Hopper (from a desk lamp, through the window and indirectly from above) create a subtle tension.

Moving Train, circa 1900

Women at Work in New York City

New York Interior, 1921
Girl at a Sewing Machine, 1921
Tables for Ladies, 1930 {collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art}

Bridges, Waterways and Parks of New York City

Manhattan Bridge, 1925-1926
Tugboat with Black Smokestack, 1908
Le Pont des Arts, 1907 {Paris}
Macomb’s Dam Bridge, 1935
Manhattan Bridge Entrance, 1926
House at Dusk, 1935
Bridle Path, 1939

Deciphering Edward Hopper

We find it interesting that Hopper chose to depict Central Park with grey trees and distant buildings, but no inhabitants — unless you consider the stone statues (above) as surrogates for city dwellers. During Hopper’s lifetime, New York City experienced unprecedented growth. The city’s population boomed and skyscrapers reached record-breaking heights, and yet time and again Hopper presented this crowded metropolis as largely unpopulated.

Is it possible that buildings and other man-made structures are intended to represent the individuals who dwell within them and who are largely absent from Edward Hopper’s paintings?

Blackwell’s Island

Blackwell’s Island, 1911
Blackwell’s Island, 1928

Hopper’s 1928 painting of “Blackwell’s Island” (above) presents one of the most lovely and serene images in this powerful exhibition. This was the third painting Hopper made showing Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). At the right part of this canvas, you will notice a tiny glimpse of the Queensboro Bridge which in reality (as shown below) looms large over Blackwell’s Island, a tiny sliver of land between Manhattan and Queens in New York City’s East River.

Here we have a perfect example of how Hopper used the constructed environment to stand in for the residents the artist does not show. In this serene and lovely urban seascape, shown above, Hopper draws our attention to a cluster of buildings which in 1928 housed an asylum, a penitentiary, and a city-run smallpox hospital — municipal facilities dedicated to dealing with mental, societal, and physical disorders.

Queensborough Bridge, 1913
Self-Portrait, 1925-30 by Edward Hopper

After you take in the challenging art of Edward Hopper, perhaps you will head north into Midtown to see the New York City Holiday Tree at Rockefeller Center (above), before heading on to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is open from 10:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon, closed on Wednesdays, and we suggest you plan a visit in the early evening on a Friday or Saturday when the Met museum offers extended hours from 10:00 in the morning until 9:00 in the evening! The Met is closed on December 25 and January 1.

A Holiday Visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Christmas Tree & eighteenth-century Neapolitan Baroque Creche in front of the choir screen from Spain’s Cathedral of Valladolid

With a collection of over 2,000,000 works… Where to Begin at The Met

The permanent collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (colloquially “the Met”) is curated by 17 departments, and the main building on Fifth Avenue alone is by area one of the largest art museums in the world.

Some departments, housing art from classical antiquity (Greece and Rome) as well as the ancient Near East, for example, cannot compare with stronger collections found in Europe. We therefore recommend you begin with some of the most impressive parts of the Met’s holdings such as Netherlandish painting or “The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing” (opened in 1982) housing fine art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. While some of the possessions of the Met may also be commonly found in other Western museums — such as furniture, tapestries, and antique weapons / armor from around the world — the most wonderful quality of museums in the United States in general is the broad range of ceramics, jewelry, timepieces, glass, fashion, photographs, mathematical & musical instruments, and architectural elements on display. In other words, art museums in America are often surprising (and never boring) because they do not limit their purpose to the exhibition of sculpture and painting.

The Temple of Dendur {carved from Aeolian sandstone} was completed by 10 B.C.

After seeing the Christmas tree and art from Japan, China and Egypt, we decided to view European paintings from the early part of the nineteenth-century, when many artists from Scandinavia and France would embark on sojourns to Italy and North Africa for inspiration. We also had a keen interest in seeing stained glass, seascapes and landscapes by some of the most talented artists from the USA, notably Tiffany, Homer, Twachtman and Inness — so we added the American Wing of the museum to our agenda.

The Massacre of the Innocents, 1824 by Francois-Joseph Navez
Columns of the Temple of Neptune at Paestum, 1838 by Constantin Hansen
Sunset, Sorrento, 1834 by Thomas Fearnley
Bashi-Bazouk, 1868-69 by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Edge of a Wood, 1850 by Theodore Caruelle d’Aligny
The North Cape by Moonlight, 1848 by Peder Balke
The Basilica of Constantine (left) & The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, 1822-25 (right) by Charles Remond
The Arch of Constantine Seen from the Colosseum, 1818-38 by Lancelot Turpin de Crisse
Prayer in the Mosque, 1871 by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Hamlet in the Auvergne, 1830 by Theodore Rousseau

Planting the Seeds of Impressionism

In 1830, the 18-year-old Frenchman Theodore Rousseau ventured into the rugged terrain of the Auvergne region to draw and paint from a high perch in the hills. Shortly thereafter, Rousseau’s panoramic view (shown above) of a hamlet at the base of a steep cliff was celebrated in Paris by leaders of the ascendant Romantic movement. As a result, the French countryside would soon take its place as the equal of Italy’s in terms of artistic inspiration and innovation, and the en plein air sketching expeditions of Rousseau and Charles-Francois Daubigny (below) would profoundly change the course of landscape painting over the next 60 years in France, North America and even Italy where in the late 1850s a group of Tuscan painters known as the Macchiaioli broke with the antiquated conventions taught by the European academies in order to paint outdoors to capture natural light, shade and color.

Sunset Near Arbonne, 1860-65 by Theodore Rousseau
Fishing, 1862-63 by Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet & Claude Monet

While both Manet and Monet achieved initial success by submitting their paintings to the official Salon, their modernist tendencies and styles would eventually lead them down independent paths. In 1861, Manet submitted two paintings to the Salon; both were accepted and one — The Spanish Singer (on view at the Met) — won an honorable mention. Manet would not receive unequivocal recognition from the Salon for another 20 years. Luncheon on the Grass {Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe}, Manet’s 1863 submission to the Salon, was rejected and the scandal caused by the presentation of Olympia (1865) prompted Manet to flee to Spain.

In 1866, Claude Monet’s Woman in the Green Dress was accepted by the jury at the Salon and received positive reviews. In the following year, however, Monet’s submission was rejected and Monet proposed the idea of exhibiting independently — together with other painters who would one day be called the Impressionists — a proposition that would not be realized due to a lack of funds until 1874.

The Impressionists organized eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886 but Manet never exhibited with them. Manet was one of the first nineteenth-century artists to paint modern life and his alla prima {at once} technique was adopted by the Impressionists because this style allowed them to paint quickly enough to capture on canvas the changing effects of light. In retrospect, Edouard Manet was the most pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism.

The Bodmer Oak, Fontainebleau Forest, 1865 by Claude Monet
The Pardon in Brittany, 1886 by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret
The American Wing inside the MET is illuminated by a wall of windows facing Central Park
Grapevine Panels (1902-15) designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany
Neoclassical marble facade (1822-24) of the United States Branch Bank of Wall Street
Winslow Homer seascapes (1895-96): Maine Coast, Cannon Rock, and Northeaster (left to right)
Kynance, 1888 by John Brett
Arques-la-Bataille, 1885 by John Henry Twachtman
Spring Blossoms, Montclaire, New Jersey, 1891 by George Inness
Metalwork, glass and ornamentation by Tiffany Studios in the American Wing

The Great Hall

The main entrance to the Met Museum, known as the Great Hall, opened to the public in December 1902. At that time, the Evening Post newspaper announced that New York City finally had a neoclassical palace for the display of art, “one of the finest in the world, and the only public building in recent years which approaches in dignity and grandeur the museums of the old world.”

During this year’s Holiday visit to the Met Museum, we explored some of the artistic movements which enabled France to become the creative center of Europe during the 19th century, displacing Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. Guardians of Neoclassicism such as Ingres in France and Navez in Belgium and leaders of Orientalism like Gerome would gradually see their traditional movements wane in influence as proponents of Naturalism and Romanticism (Dagnan-Bouveret and Rousseau, respectively) gained recognition.

Of course, French Impressionism would surpass all of these 19th-century artistic trends in popularity and longevity. The Metropolitan Museum of Art possesses the finest holdings of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in New York, so please take a look at our article entitled “New York City — 3 Incredible Art Museums” to enjoy the depth of the Met’s collection of art from the 1860s through the beginning of the 20th century.

The Virgin Adoring the Host, 1852 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
The New York City Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center

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