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Edward Hopper: An Artist in Pursuit of Desire

by Matt Backer


Edward Hopper, modern realist painter of the early twentieth century, carried a quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his wallet throughout his mature life. The single line read as follows:

The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me, all things being grasped, related, re-created, molded, and reconstructed in a personal form and original manner.[1]

When he shared the quote in an interview with art critic Brian O'Doherty, Hopper explained that the sentiment applied to artistic as well as literary production. The lines relay a belief held both by the American painter and the German poet, that the role of the artist could be understood through a simple model. The input to the artist-model was the natural world. This input is changed according to the identity of the artist, and the model's output is the literary or artistic work. Despite its simplicity, the pursuit described by this model absorbed the lives of both men, and the model provides insight into how each man viewed creative production in general and his own work, in particular. According to the quote, the key to artistic production is the application of "the world that is in me." This might be paraphrased as an individual's store of experiences, emotions, and traits, in other words, that individual's identity. Thus, we might think of a story by Goethe as a series of events, overlaid by his identity, or a painting by Hopper as a scene of the natural world, subtly distorted by his individual peculiarities. By observing an artist's work, we see the represented scene (or narrative) as if through that artist's eyes; we adopt the artist's gaze.

The gaze has a particular meaning in art historical discourse, which is elicited in Ellen Handler Spitz's discussion of Edouard Manet's classic painting, Olympia (1863, not reproduced), a particularly rich object for the topic, because the image reciprocates our gaze through the steady eyes of the central figure.[2]What is our relationship to this woman? Unlike the nude female in traditional academic art, the woman does not appear to be a goddess or an allegory, but a nude woman lying in a bed near us in very real space. Indeed, the fine details, sharp contours, and abrupt shading give the woman a hyper-real quality. Secondary elements confirm the base nature of the relationship: a black cat, symbol of infidelity, stands at the foot of the bed, a maid presents the romantic gift of a bouquet, and the woman betrays her awareness of our sexual relationship to her through the position of her hand, pressed protectively over her pubis. The woman is a prostitute, and her ambivalent expression suggests that the viewer is a potential client. We imagine the existence of a rival due to the presentation of flowers. Indeed, a rival could lurk behind the dark curtain at the far end of the room.

At this point, it is clear that we inhabit a particular role in a particular society while viewing the painting. Only certain people in nineteenth century France would be in this position. The surroundings are luxurious which suggests that the woman's clients were wealthy. Wealthy individuals with the freedom to visit houses of prostitution were white and male. Indeed, Manet's audience and potential patrons were almost exclusively white and male. Furthermore, Manet made blatant reference to Titian's canvas of the same name, a reference that would resonate only among the elite, white classes. While this circumstance hardly precludes other individuals' appreciation of the scene, they adopt the persona of a wealthy white male in nineteenth century France when viewing the painting. By recognizing our role in the world of the painting, we begin to understand our relationship to the various elements contained therein. The gaze of the painting identifies us as one of the woman's many objects of desire, subject, like our rival, to her whims; we are infinitely replaceable.[3]

The role posited by the gaze is rarely as explicit as that of Olympia; nevertheless, as suggested in Goethe's quote, the prejudice of the artist always marks the work of art. For the purpose of this essay, this means that we adopt the persona of Edward Hopper as we come to appreciate the sentiments of his paintings, as will become clearer as my argument progresses.[4] Indeed, when asked about his choice of subject matter, Hopper replied, "I'm after me."[5] While the presence of the painter is an elusive quality in most art, the general circumstances of Hopper's life give us a general idea of the goal her pursued and the role we inhabit. Edward Hopper was born in 1882 and spent his childhood in the small town of Nyack, N. Y. After graduating from Nyack High School in 1899, he moved into New York City to attend the Chase School. He remained in New York for the rest of his life (with the exception of brief sojourns to Paris early in his career and, later, vacations to the country). As we will experience by adopting Hopper's role, the artist felt that he belonged to neither of these worlds entirely; a contemplative distance is ubiquitous in his images, rural and urban.

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