Painting of the Day-Hopper’s “Approaching a City”

10 Jan

hopper approaching a city

Edward Hopper. Approaching a City, 1946. Oil on canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Notes (from museum website):

Travel is a recurring theme in Edward Hopper’s art. Actively seeking commonplace subjects, he often gave more significance to the journey than to the destination. “To me,” Hopper wrote, “the most important thing is the sense of going on.” Such is the arrested, lonely feeling of Approaching a City. Characteristically, Hopper did not reveal what lay ahead, and in referring to the work, the painter said he wanted to evoke the “interest, curiosity, (and) fear” that one experiences when entering or leaving a city.

Ultimately, Approaching a City conveys a paradox of contemporary life. The unseen traveler of the image is caught in a curious limbo and isolation between city and country. The railroad made faraway places accessible to ordinary people, but it also made those places less distinctive. Hopper, by asserting the anonymity of the place and not revealing the train’s destination, suggests a future that is at once both predictable and unknown.

Excerpt from interview between Edward Hopper and John Morse conducted on June 17, 1959

J.M.: Mr. Hopper, I’d like to ask you about one particular picture that made a great impression on me when I first saw it at the Whitney exhibition, and still does, although now it’s in the Duncan Phillips Collection in Washington. That’s Approaching a City, and I’m quite sure, or how I could put it into words, the particular appeal of this picture – maybe it’s impossible – but I would like to hear what you have to say about it.

E.H.: Well, I’ve always been interested in approaching a big city in a train, and I can’t exactly describe the sensations, but they’re entirely human and perhaps have nothing to do with aesthetics. There is a certain fear and anxiety and a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city. I think that’s about all I can say about it.

J.M.: Well, in painting this picture were you aware of these wonderful solid geometric forms that took my eye at once?

E.H.: Well, I suppose I was. I tried for those things more or less unintentionally.

J.M.: Would you go so far as to say it’s almost a subconscious result, effect?

E.H.: Yes, I think so.

J.M.: But what was in your mind when you were painting it, I gather then, was this feeling of approaching a city?

E.H.: Yes.

J.M.: Thank you.

My comments:

Like his paintings, one might surmise from this interview excerpt that Hopper was a simple, concise, yet profound artist. He does not have a technical or formal, academic approach to his painting (at least in this case). Instead, he discusses his artistic process mainly in terms of the feelings he was trying to convey. Even when the interviewer tries to see how intentional Hopper was about the formal construction of the painting, Hopper hesitates to claim being so deliberate in his creation. This adds an interesting wrinkle to the question I always wonder about artists’ intentionality when they create their masterful paintings. In the painting and drawing classes I’ve taken at Swarthmore, we never discuss the feelings we had when painting a particular subject. Instead, we always focused solely on the formal elements of the painting and how we used them: we talked only about light, line, color, space, etc. And I’ve always wondered if this is the way the artists that we admire are thinking about their work as well.

At least using Hopper as an example, it appears this is not always the case. Somehow, Hopper incorporated skillful employments of the formal elements without thinking about that primarily. The feelings that he wished to convey are what primarily guided him through this artistic journey. Assuming that Hopper isn’t simply lucky that this method worked out since he has made hundreds of paintings and drawings at this point, he is truly a talented artist, where the language of painting is so second-nature to him that it happens effortlessly when he paints.

Compared to the painting I posted yesterday which Hopper painted twenty years before, I think this painting certainly shows improvement and maturity over that time span. Whereas the black portions of the painting from yesterday (Sunday) were streaky and allowed bits of the canvas to poke through, the paint application here is smooth and well-distributed. The composition is captivating as well. We don’t need to know what specific city Hopper painted to feel the anxiety and open possibility that Hopper communicated so well through that black tunnel. Of all the ways Hopper could have depicted the anxiety and fear of entering a big city, he choose a simple yet powerful approach that I think works so well. Hopper’s subject matter always sounds  boring on paper, but in its visual realization, it is mesmerizing.

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