Edward Hopper’s ‘A Theater Entrance,’ a watercolor, brush and ink and graphite pencil on paper. Part of the exhibit ‘The Unknown
Edward Hopper’s ‘A Theater Entrance,’ a watercolor, brush and ink and graphite pencil on paper. Part of the exhibit ‘The Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator’ opening this weekend at the Norman Rockwell Museum. (© Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art. Digital Image © Whitney Museum of American Art.)

STOCKBRIDGE

Painter Edward Hopper loathed the commercial illustrations he had to do to support himself before his artwork began to sell. And he had no use for his contemporary, Norman Rockwell, who was so successful at it.

"He does everything from photos. They look it too, " he complained.

Now, 47 years after his death, Hopper's little-known illustrations are getting new attention at, ironically, the Norman Rockwell Museum. "The Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator," opening this weekend, will feature work by the two artists and others of their early 20th century publishing milieu.

How would this posthumous turn of events sit with Hopper, of whom one client, actress Helen Hayes, said: "I had never met a more misanthropic, grumpy, grouchy individual in my life."?

It depends.

When Hopper died in 1967, commercial illustration was ranked on a scale of creativity far below "fine art" with a capital A. The New York art establishment, at that time fixated on Abstract Expressionism and Conceptualism, considered even realism in painting obsolete. Under those circumstances, Hopper would have cringed at drawing attention to an aspect of his career that he deplored.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and it's a whole new ballgame. The old division between commercial and fine art has grown porous and realistic images like those Hopper and Rockwell created are back in style big time.


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If Hopper was alive today, he might be pleased at the added attention, said his biographer, Gail Levin, in a telephone interview last week from New York, where she teaches art history at Baruch College of the City University of New York,

Quoting him as saying once that "90 percent of artists are forgotten 10 minutes after they're dead," she speculated that Hopper would be happy to be among the 10 percent who are remembered.

"What encouraged my original research into Hopper's early work as an illustrator," she said in her catalog essay for the exhibition, "was his statement: ‘In every artist's development, the germ of the later work is always found in the earlier.' If we ask why Hopper's art is so popular today, we might have to give some credit to his early training and practice as an illustrator."

Tracing those parallels is an objective of the new exhibition said curator Stephanie Plunkett, who explained the museum has wanted for some time to look at painters who also functioned as illustrators, like modernist Arthur Dove, Ash Can School painter John Sloan and Pop artist Andy Warhol.

The new show features more than 50 drawings and paintings by Hopper on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art, many of them studies for and proofs of illustrations that Hopper, himself, carefully saved. It also includes work by Rockwell and by Hopper's fellow students and teachers as a context for his 20 years in illustration.

Born in Nyack, N.Y., in 1882, young Hopper was a precocious artist whose parents recognized his talent, but urged him to study illustration so he could make a living.

He began studies in 1899 at the Correspondence School of Illustrating, transferring the next year to the New York School of Art, where fine art was also taught. There, he studied with Robert Henri who encouraged students to paint life as they saw it, and John Sloan, whose directly observed realism Hopper admired and took as a direction for himself.

In 1906, to pay his bills and gain some measure of financial independence from his family, he took a part-time job at the C.C. Phillips & Co. advertising agency in New York. That led to commissions for advertisements, posters and illustrations for popular magazines such as "Scribner's" and commercial house organs like "Hotel Management" and the "Wells Fargo Messenger."

Besides giving him an income, working part time allowed him to pursue his own artwork and even to make three trips to Paris between 1906 and 1910.  There, according to Levin, he was less interested in the avant-garde experiments of artists like Picasso and Braque, than in popular French illustration, particularly watercolor caricature. He would spend hours in cafes and other public places making caricatures of French men and women, particularly prostitutes, she said.

Back home, however, he had no luck selling his personal work and had to continue seeking illustration jobs to survive.

Like so much in art marketing, Levin said, "It's about having the right work before the right audience at the right time."

Around 1918, he began having some success showing and selling his personal etchings, she said. By 1925, the year after he married Josephine Nivinson, an artist and teacher who became his muse, he was able to quit illustrating to paint full time.

When he did, Levin and Plunkett said, he carried over some motifs from his commercial work. The office settings he created for Systems, The Magazine of Business -- forerunner to Business Week -- reappear in later paintings like "Office in a Small City" (1953) and "Office at Night" (1940).

"My aim," he is quoted as saying, "was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior high in the air with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me."

Trains, boats and other forms of transportation also show up as images throughout his career, as do theaters.

"He was one of the earliest to paint people at the movies and took inspiration from the movies themselves," said Levin. His "New York Movie" of 1939, showing a solitary movie house usher caught in a thoughtful moment, is one example, although not in the show.

Plunkett pointed to the ways Hopper persistently frames solitary or small groups of disconnected figures with windows and other architectural elements, using "lots of diagonals and off-kilter compositions." A woman looking out her bedroom window in "Morning in the City" at the Williams College Museum of Art; or a handful of late night customers seen through the window of a diner in his 1942 "Nighthawks" at the Chicago Art Institute are two examples.

Levin suggested one reason Hopper is so popular today is because his art reproduces so well in publications and on the Internet.

Though sometimes grouped with mid-20th century American Scene painters or regionalists like Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton, Levin said Hopper distanced himself from such homeland-driven affiliations.

"He was just painting what he saw," she said, "whether New England or New York."

Unlike Rockwell, who was a gifted visual narrator with an aptitude for showing people engaged with each other, as is the happy family around a Thanksgiving table in "Freedom From Want," Levin said, "You never find a happy family in a Hopper -- or not in Hopper's mature painting."

"Hopper was a difficult personality who suffered from depression, she continued. "He had a psychological block to creating art images on demand. He believed they had to develop from his inner imagination.

"That he should cater to a client, even a special client, was alien to Hopper," she wrote in the catalog. "He was not interested in telling a specific story, especially one written by some author and assigned by some editor."

Rockwell, on the other hand, relished such work.

"You've got to be obvious," he is quoted as saying. "You've got to please both the art editor and the public. This makes it tough on the illustrator compared with the fine artist who can paint an object any way he happens to interpret it.

For Hopper, commercial work was simply a wrong fit.

"I was a rotten illustrator, or a mediocre one anyway," he said once. "Maybe I'm not very human. What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house."