Hopper's glowing, frozen time

Edward Hopper described himself as a painter of light. Lightfall and shadow cast are integral to Hopper's art. But, as shown here in "Early Sunday Morning," a popular work in The Whitney Museum of American Art's collection, there is more to the mature Hopper. Early in his career, he learned from French Impressionism. But its fascination for the fleeting character of sunlight was not entirely compatible with Hopper's character.

The sense of a frozen moment with which Hopper potently instilled his pictures comes much closer to 17th-century Dutch painters like De Hooch or Vermeer. In their paintings, architecture often epitomizes this stillness. In Hopper's works, "architecture" includes rooms into which light falls, exterior facades, and whole buildings across which light passes. He also had a fascination for interiors glimpsed from outside at night.

The architecture Hopper most often painted was monumental. The urban buildings surrounding him in New York and the rural ones in New England were survivors from an earlier century. He emphasized their solidity and presence, a divergence from Impressionist paintings of buildings - such as Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral, dissolved in light.

In "Early Sunday Morning," Hopper's canny observation of the play of morning light catching edges and details of this procession of silent, closed shops and secretive upper windows serves to accentuate the facade's structure. Shadows do the same. He particularly liked them angled dramatically or stretching out because of a low sun. Aloneness predominates. Hopper painted out the only figure he thought of including. The lovingly depicted hydrant and barber's pole stand in inanimately for figures.

A keen theatergoer, Hopper may have been inspired by a stage set. The building has the orientation of stage scenery. The painting's title has stuck, though Hopper said "Sunday" was attached by someone else. He thought of it as any morning. Nevertheless, it evokes hauntingly that human absence once typical of "the day of rest."

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