The first time I met an Edward Hopper picture in person was in my early twenties. I had discovered Edward Hopper years before as a teenager, when I read a review of a retrospective of his paintings which came through Washington, D.C. My sophomore year of high school had finished days earlier. The best way to explain my state of mind then was that it rhymed with Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’, the famous portrayal of urban angst and solitude which was splashed on top of the Washington Post article reviewing the show. That night, I crawled in rush hour traffic to the Borders Books at Tysons Corner as the summer sun set over the smog of Route 7. I found a Taschen book of Edward Hopper’s paintings and flipped through it for an hour.
In the book were the expressions of a perplexed soul whom I could finally relate to. The paintings represented were fifty years old but I could smell fresh paint mixed in with the new book smell and coffee grounds from the Borders café. As I flicked from ‘Dawn in Pennsylvania’ to ‘Seven A.M.’ to ‘Early Sunday Morning’, I felt hope. Hope that there was something else to find in myself other than roiling emotions and turgid despair. Hope that someone else had not only felt the same way but had felt it about a different world, in a different time. I never got the chance to see the retrospective but I continued to leaf through the book during the long, sober Saturday nights of my adolescence.
‘To me the important thing is the sense of going on. You know how beautiful things are when you’re traveling.’
The First Hopper
A few Hopper pictures reside in the museums of Washington. The one which particularly struck me in reproduction was the Phillips Collection’s ‘Approaching a City’ (1946) (pictured above), a moody and mysterious picture of a railway entering a tunnel. I had long intended to visit ‘Approaching a City’ but life got in the way and, before I knew it, I was back in my original home of Australia studying medicine. I regularly returned to Washington, though, to visit family and friends and during one trip, with a few empty days in front of me, I went to the Phillips Collection.
I was the only person in the galleries of the Phillips Collection on the still winter day when I visited. Even the old wooden floorboards, normally creaky and complaining, were hushed. The only sound was of the occasional distant hiss of a radiator. ‘Approaching a City’ was hanging in one of the small, upstairs bedrooms. The picture shows the gaping maw of a train tunnel piercing the underbelly of a modern city. Hopper told a contemporary curator that the painting ‘was trying to express the emotions one has in a train coming into a strange town – interest, curiosity, uneasiness. He feels that one realizes the quality of a place most fully on first coming to it and on leaving it.’
The main emotion I had when seeing ‘Approaching a City’ was of excitement. The clean precision of the railway line cutting across the city and the large scale of the painting combined to make the tunnel seem small and welcoming rather than intimidating. Gone were the claustrophobia and desolation I had seen in reproductions, replaced by a brightness of spirit I had never associated with Edward Hopper.
As I relayed the experience to my friends in the following days, I found that I had not been alone in my misconceptions of Hopper. Most thought I must have had a strong coffee just before entering the Phillips Collection or that I was enjoying the break from dissecting cadavers a little too much. Their experience of Hopper simply had no relation to my enthusiastic rants. The Hopper they knew, the Hopper in reproductions, was lonely and depressive.
I began to doubt myself. Did the grande mocha I downed before entering the galleries cloud my judgment? Was it the excited blush of first meeting which would wear off with repeated viewings? It was my mother, in the end, who pushed me. An artist herself, she alone was excited by my experience. A glint in her eye told me there was something true within my impressions, something that needed to be confirmed.
A Journey Begins
There was one way to confirm it. I decided that week to look at each of Edward Hopper’s pictures in turn. Not by turning a page, but by visiting every one of his paintings and watercolors in person, from California to Boston, New York to Seattle. Only then, after visiting Hopper’s pictures on their own turf, with clear eyes and a clear mind, could I convince myself and everyone else what Hopper was about.
It was three years before I embarked on my journey. During those years, I graduated from medicine and started work. I gained new friends and lost some old ones. I moved cities and traveled the world. In the end there was only one journey which would satisfy me: a journey through Edward Hopper’s America.
Is a journey through Edward Hopper’s America your idea of heaven? Share this post with a friend!