In 1934 Edward Hopper created his oil painting ‘Sun on Prospect Street’. Its subject is an ordinary street in an ordinary American seaside town. The geometric image showing a row of houses and three parked cars is completely devoid of people. The architecture on Prospect Street is recorded with detailed precision. The artist has removed all superfluous elements of the scene, inviting the viewer to add the narrative to an image that is both familiar and strangely foreign. The painting typifies Hopper’s style. Trained by William Merritt Chase, an impressionist; Kenneth Hayes Miller, an urban realist; and Robert Henri, the inspiration behind the Ashcan realists, Hopper is often defined as an American scene painter in line with his predecessors who depicted aspects of everyday city life. Hopper’s intensely personal art, however, does not fit well into this category. His contemplative and introspective figures appear to be alienated from life and society. They occupy a world devoid of interaction and communication, provoking questions about human relationships, the social roles people play, and about the meaning of life itself.
Born on 22 July 1882 in Nyack, New York, Hopper was a loner who experienced acute discomfort in interpersonal relationships. From the outset, his work permeates isolation. He enrolled at the New York School of Art (Chase School), and between 1906 and 1910 made three trips to Europe where he admired the work of Gustave Courbet and Edgar Degas. He was especially drawn to artists whose work included ordinary scenes of people in mundane situations. In 1924 Hopper married Josephine [Jo] Nivison. The couple honeymooned in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a landscape that would become a favourite subject for the painter. They made Greenwich Village their home, sharing time between city and country. During the 1920s Hopper’s career started to take shape. Hooked on travel, he frequently treated themes related to transience such as lodging rooms, restaurants, and trains. His interest in the hotel lobby, a temporary space where strangers briefly congregate but rarely communicate, was sparked by films and novels, especially the detective-story depiction of this area as a meeting place for the protagonists.
In 1941 the second version of The Maltese Falcon appeared on screen. Starring Humphrey Bogart, it is a mystery thriller in which the private-eye confronts the gangster in a hotel lobby. Hopper was attracted to this style of filming with its shadowy settings, eerie lighting, and complex plots. All these elements came together in the 1943 painting ‘Hotel Lobby’, one of his more intriguing works.
The emphasis on a dysfunctional relationship in this painting is not unusual for Hopper. The theme of discontented couples returns regularly in his work. Alternatively, the detailed architectural qualities of Hopper’s painting influenced film makers. His ‘House by the Railroad’ (1925), an ugly dwelling in an uninspiring setting, inspired Hitchcock’s choice of location for Psycho. The painting’s grey mansion is a melancholic reminder of the damage inflicted on the countryside by the demands of progress. At the time railroad tracks were associated with the rapid and noisy change of modern life, but this scene is curiously silent. It is as if the maelstrom of industrialization has passed it by.
Hopper, working in the period between two world wars, feared that urbanization would wipe out the pastoral character of the New World. In the picture, the railway track has been given the colour of earth as if taking the place of the pleasant stream that once formed the background of the American landscape. The painting expresses a tone of regret that reminds one of John Ruskin’s famous outbursts against the industrial pollution of the English countryside.
By the end of the nineteenth century streetscapes had become associated with Paris and the Impressionists. Napoleon III had appointed Georges Haussmann to realize the ambitious project of turning the French capital into a modern metropolis. Once this massive task was completed, the revitalized city turned into one of the favourite pictorial subjects. From Édouard Manet to Gustave Caillebotte, from Pierre Auguste Renoir to Camille Pissarro, Parisian boulevards were considered the ultimate source of inspiration by many outstanding painters of the era.They grasped the atmosphere and dynamics of everyday life on the newly created boulevards and avenues. The cityscape was exported from Paris to America by such talented painters as James McNeill Whistler and Childe Hassam who preceded the artists of the Ashcan School.
As American society became increasingly urbanized, art took a grittier and less romantic direction. Ashcan artists focused on depicting everyday life in Manhattan and the bustling streets of early twentieth-century New York. Leading figures such as Robert Henri, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and George Bellows, insisted that artists should face urban realities to find their subject matter. They urged young painters to step aside from sterile academic orthodoxy and develop a harsh style reflecting the essence of metropolitan life. Earlier paintings of New York were characterized by distance, being either impressionistic blurs or bird’s-eye views of the city. By contrast, Ashcan artists looked for street level realism. Their gaze was directed at the perspectives of the street itself, their ambition to communicate the ‘theatre’ of inner city streets.
In the commemoration of ordinary lives, the Ashcanners put New York on the artistic map as the city that defines metropolitanism. In their images the crowd effectively becomes the city itself and serves as its primary imagery. Ashcan art offers an intimate feeling for the pressures of inner-city life. The best of these paintings are evocative observations of day to day experiences presented in such a manner that the viewer can emphasize with the ordinariness of the subject matter. The anonymity of city life may be stressed, but the image invites the viewer to participate, to become involved, and to enter into a dialogue. These snapshots of city life are dramatized stories of a struggle for survival in the urban jungle. As such, critics tend to consider the Ashcan creative output as a visual equivalent of Walt Whitman’s poetry.
George Bellows was a student of Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. When he died in 1925, aged only forty-two, Bellows was hailed as one of the greatest artists America had yet produced. His paintings and drawings of tenement children and New York street scenes are iconic images of the modern city. These were produced during an extraordinary period of creativity that began shortly after he left his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, for New York in 1904. He selected contemporary subjects that challenged prevailing standards of taste, depicting the city’s impoverished immigrant population in ‘River Rats’ (1906) and other paintings. Bellows’s New York scenes portrayed the crudity of deprived neighbourhoods. Fascinated with the full spectrum of life of the urban working classes, he chronicled a variety of subjects and applied an array of palettes and painting techniques. From 1907 through 1915, he executed a series of paintings depicting New York City under snowfall. To the artist, these paintings were a testing ground in which he developed a strong sense of light and visual texture. However, his signature contributions to art history are the paintings recording brutal boxing bouts.
To circumvent a state ban on public boxing, fights were illegally organized by private clubs in New York at that time. In three acclaimed masterpieces, ‘Club Night (1907), ‘Stag at Sharkey’s’ (1909), and ‘Both Members of This Club’ (1909), Bellows’s slashing brushwork matches the violent action of the fight itself, and relates the aggressive participation of a grim-faced and chain-smoking audience. These pictures are powerful and disturbing – raw reflections on life in the metropolis. They have become iconic depictions of the American inner-city struggle. The spirit of tough desperation these paintings evoke has been maintained by Paul Simon in his celebrated 1968 song ‘The Boxer’ (first recorded by Simon & Garfunkel).
European Impressionists (and their American followers) created a model of visuality that has been associated with the figure of the disinterested flâneur, the prototypical urban spectator celebrated artistically by Charles Baudelaire or Louis Couperus and critically by Walter Benjamin. The flâneur was a gentleman-dandy whose independent means allowed him to cultivate the arts and rise above the crowd. He would stroll about town without particular direction, purpose, or destination, infiltrating society to see up close and yet maintaining his distance. For Baudelaire, this detached but inquisitive gaze embodied the urban human condition. It originated in the need to protect individual integrity against the threat of metropolitan anonymity. Ashcan painters focused on the city’s inhabitants for their diagnosis of the nature of modern life. They were part of a wider group of urban observers such as Walt Whitman or Stephen Crane who felt involved with the people they depicted. Art was engaged and a statement of social commitment. However, viewing the street as theatre carries with it the dangers of artistic license and misrepresentation. Both sentimentalism and sensationalism are part and parcel of the process. Scenes of poverty, crime, and immigrant life were often described as picturesque scenes and ‘entertaining’ sights.
Slumming became a pastime for a number of curious New Yorkers. A few decades earlier a parallel process had taken place in London where urban deprivation was associated with the East End. The area was by all accounts a social nightmare, a gothic tale of contemporary suffering.
One of the more bizarre aspects of London’s poverty was that by the 1890s the idea of ‘slumming it’ in the dark East End had become a leisure activity of the urban rich. Oscar Wilde’s hedonistic Dorian Gray gave the idea a literary status. The hero of the novel travels into Whitechapel’s shady alleys to sample the rude delights of entertainment that were on offer there. Various studies on London’s poorest districts provided both images of dreadful social conditions and descriptions of crude merriment in clubs and caves.
The most outstanding work of this type was London: a Pilgrimage, published in 1872 by playwright and journalist (William) Blanchard Jerrold. The word ‘pilgrimage’ is a reminder of the fact that such a journey was considered to be one of great moral significance. Illustrated by Gustave Doré, the book is a hellish vision of East End poverty. Doré’s London, with its stark contrasts between affluence and apocalyptic misery, captured the public mood at the time. Of the many social investigations undertaken in the Victorian era, the Pilgrimage had the most enduring appeal. Vincent van Gogh’s admiration for these illustrations led him to paint a version of Doré’s haunting image of dehumanized convicts circling a bleak exercise yard.
The New York Ashcanners were contemporaries of the Camden Town Group in London. Yet there are telling differences between the two traditions. Camden realists were keen to dispel all elements of sympathy or dialogue from their painting. They were interested in the systems and structures of the city to the point of exclusion of the human presence in their paintings. Their outlook was harsher, more clinical, and at the same time more anxious. The cause of this crisis feeling was not war or economic depression, but the speed of change that took place within urbanized society. Anxiety and city images are frequently paired in Camden art. The treatment of urban subjects projects the vitality of the city, but also expresses unease at the effect of massification.
People are cut off from one another, isolated, alienated. The city-dweller has lost his identity. Hopper went a step further. His most intriguing works are his interiors (which links him to the Camden realists). Composed like stage sets, these paintings depict everyday scenes populated with introspective figures that seem oblivious to their surroundings. They suggest a sense of abandonment and uncomfortable repose. The rat race has stopped. Thrown into the isolation of the night people sit back, alone, seemingly questioning the meaning of it all. Stillness pervades – the paralysis of despair. In 1900, young Hopper had made a pen and ink drawing of a ‘Dutch Girl’ in traditional costume with hat and wooden shoes. She personifies the innocence of childhood, yet she is an isolated observer, surveying a scene in which she does not participate. The image indicates that as a student Hopper was already preoccupied with Dutch art (he may have been of Dutch descent himself). The young girl has a prim demeanour – very much like the maidens Vermeer portrayed.
In his famous streetscape, through an extraordinary economy of means, Vermeer succeeded in creating an atmosphere of stillness and puritanical dignity. In painting the street he protects its dwellers – façades of a house show the viewer nothing but the outside of its intimate existence. The artist keeps his distance as if not to interrupt the locals in their daily routine. It is a technique that Hopper applies in a similar manner. Vermeer casts his endearing images in a beautifully warm light. Hopper by contrast presents his isolated characters in a glare of electricity that exposes a brutal urban milieu. The scenes created by Vermeer are tranquil and harmonious, those painted by Hopper ominous and threatening. Hopper is the Vermeer of the contemporary streetscape.