HOPPER. What American painter Edward Hopper captured with a brush, art historian Gail Levin hunted with a lens. Juxtaposing the artist's realism against reality, she sheds new light on his work and shows how time has changed Hopper's places

OF all the American realist painters active in this century, Edward Hopper is surely one of the most loved. His paintings of silent, empty city streets, silent, lonesome people, and monumental old houses strike a chord of familiarity in many of us. We are certain that somewhere we have seen the grand Victorian mansion in ``House by the Railroad'' (1925) or the row of deserted city storefronts in ``Early Sunday Morning'' (1930). Part of the measure of Hopper's genius as a realist lies in the fact that his subjects -- the people and buildings that are so unmistakably American -- are also immensely popular in such far-flung places as Australia and Germany, where his work has been frequently exhibited.

Hopper's marvelous ability to evoke the familiar continues to attract audiences, even though the era he was depicting -- mainly the 1920s through the '40s -- is long past. What perennially attracts us to his work, no doubt, is a common desire for identification with place. In a time of mobility, we yearn for roots and stability, whether it be in hometown America or a city neighborhood. How did Hopper manage to capture this universal sense of place? Just how faithful was his rendering of the origin al building or landscape? And how and why did he alter the image to achieve more than a mundane likeness?

To answer these questions we would need to compare Hopper's paintings with the buildings, lighthouses, and landscape motifs he used as subjects. We have been given this opportunity in a new book called ``Hopper's Places'' (Knopf, 1985), by art historian and photographer Gail Levin.

Ms. Levin is uniquely qualified for this task. From 1976 to 1984, she was curator of the Edward Hopper Collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where she wrote an impressive number of authoritative, thoroughly researched books and articles on Hopper, including the complete catalog of his paintings, drawings, and prints, several exhibition catalogs, and a forthcoming critical biography. With that kind of scholarly work behind her, Levin allowed herself -- and us -- this special rewar d: an elegant book containing 24 color reproductions of Hopper's most famous paintings of old houses and other sites, juxtaposed with Levin's photographs of the same scenes, arranged for easy and detailed comparison.

In the course of her research as curator of the Hopper Collection, Levin traced the artist's steps to all his favorite painting haunts, from the islands and coastal cities of Maine, to Gloucester and Cape Cod, Mass., Santa Fe, N.M., Paris, and Mexico. In each place, she searched out and photographed the very buildings and settings used by Hopper as subjects for his finished paintings, positioning herself (when new shrubbery or construction did not prevent it) on the exact spot where Hopper must have sto od to draw or paint.

At first her photographs served as a research tool to document and verify the works in the catalogs. With the publication of ``Hopper's Places,'' however, the photographs have assumed a broader purpose: to provide us with an enlarged understanding of Hopper's creative imagination, somewhat in the vein of the famous studies done in the 1920s and '30s by Erle Loran and John Rewald of C'ezanne's landscape motifs in Aix-en-Provence. In the 1920s and '30s, both Loran and Rewald combed the environs of Aix, ph otographing the actual motifs C'ezanne drew upon for his numerous paintings of Mont-Ste. Victoire and other sites in the surrounding countryside. These published studies are a rich source of insight into the methods of landscape composition used by the great French master.

In the same manner, Levin's book presents us with a built-in comparative mechanism by which to discover more precisely the how and why of Hopper's choice of subject matter and method of depiction. Examining these paintings against the photographs confirms that Hopper was indeed a realist in his accurate observation of his subjects. Levin, however, notes the sometimes subtle changes he made.

Clearly, verisimilitude alone was not his goal. Spatial organization, abrupt cropping of structures, alterations of scale or proportion, and unusual viewpoints are some of the compositional devices Hopper used to intensify the expressive content of a painting.

Sometimes he painted at the site, but more often (especially in the latter part of his career) he made detailed drawings with color notations and then executed the final painting in the studio. He didn't work from photographs, although he sometimes used a camera to record architectural details. Revealing his distrust of the camera, he once commented, ``The camera sees things from a different angle, not like the eye,'' adding that photographic images ``do not have enough weight.''

In a text that is refreshingly free of the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and elaborate stylistic analysis, Levin describes just how Hopper managed to lend that missing weight and living presence to the painted image. Often he would crop off the top of a structure, as in ``Rooms for Tourists'' (1945), so that our eye would be contained within the immediate scene. In this painting as in so many others, the time of day or night is also an important factor in conveying a mood. The old house with its dark

awnings is cheerfully lit, inviting us to come in out of the night and ask for a room.

Occasionally he used multiple viewpoints, combining several angles of observation into one, or closing up space between buildings so as to expose more of their character. In ``Lighthouse Hill (1927) he chose a low angle of vision, the ``worm's-eye view,'' to accentuate the isolation of the lighthouse and keeper's house as they loom against the sky atop the long, sloping hill. The dramatic contrast of the deep afternoon shadows and the glow of the declining sun as it strikes the buildings heightens the feeling of loneliness.

In the book Levin relates some of her experiences -- successes and failures -- in locating Hopper's places. Some sites, like the lighthouse at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, were easily identifiable and essentially unchanged. Often her search was aided by careful record books kept by Hopper's wife, Jo Nivison, of the locations and subjects of many of his paintings. Other spots were difficult to find, either because they no longer exist or they have been drastically changed. As Levin's expertise wi th Hopper's work increased, she began to acquire a bloodhound's nose for likely Hopper sites. Going into an area like Gloucester, where he painted numerous times, she would -- often with clues provided by the local firemen, who knew the neighborhood houses well -- drive or walk the streets for hours, tracking down his houses.

Occasionally Hopper would simply invent a motif, using elements from many real scenes he had accumulated in memory and drawings. Or he would so alter a site that it is too difficult to determine its real counterpart with any certainty.

``House by the Railroad'' is a case in point. A likely model for it is a massive Second Empire-style house, complete with mansard roof and central tower, in the town of Haverstraw, N.Y., not far from Hopper's native city of Nyack, and thus one he might well have seen.

If this is the actual house -- and Levin concedes she is unsure in this instance -- Hopper made major changes. Although in reality the house is across from the railroad station, Hopper has (as in many other compositions) compressed the distance between the tracks and the house. The truncated segment of railroad tracks creates at once a psychological barrier and a feeling of isolation, underscored by the artist's elimination of all surrounding structures. In addition he has changed some important a rchitectural details by adding a second-story cornice and a more prominent projection of the tower, omitting all but the front part of the porch.

But, as Levin points out, even if this is not the actual house Hopper used, it is, nonetheless, quintessentially Hopper in type and spirit. And perhaps this is the greatest tribute to his art: Having experienced Hopper's work, we become more appreciative of even the commonplace architecture that surrounds us daily.

Some people know Hopper best for his figure paintings, and one may miss these in ``Hopper's Places.'' Levin does show us the house (his boyhood home in Nyack) used in the painting ``Summer Evening'' (1947), but without the young couple. The obvious explanation is that Hopper's figure paintings were too studied and composed to be captured authentically in a photograph. The book is essentially a photographic essay on the idea of place, and to attempt to reconstruct Hopper's scenes with people would be a t heatrical contrivance not in keeping wth this theme.

``Hopper's Places'' is at once a tribute to America's master realist painter and a display of Levin's abilities as a photographer and as a historian of modern art.

Her photographs, in fact, have received recognition of their own. In September they were shown at Rutgers University in New Jersey -- with 36 corresponding oils, watercolors, and drawings by Hopper. From there the photographs began an extended exhibition tour, first in New York at the Kennedy Galleries and now at the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester in New York (through Nov. 17); from there they will travel to the Fay Gold Gallery in Atlanta (through December); the Barridoff Gallery i n Portland, Maine (through January); and finally the Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, Hopper's birthplace (through July).

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.