Office at Night, oil on canvas, 1940

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Edward Hopper was the quintessential American realist. Or wait, maybe he was actually a sexually repressed surrealist. Blame critics for the confusion: By the time most of them started noticing Hopper, he’d been laboring in relative obscurity for a couple of decades. Hopper’s bare-bones style first came to the attention of writers like Lloyd Goodrich and Forbes Watson in the mid-’20s, when Frank Rehn’s New York gallery began showing his work. These writers portrayed Hopper as an entirely self-invented Yankee painter, uninterested in developments in Europe. “In Hopper’s color, as in his drawing,” Goodrich wrote, “there is an unfatigued, hard vigor that seems to me to be as native to this country as his choice of subject matter or the spareness and austerity of his style.”

It was a convenient assertion; at that point between two world wars, cultural isolationism was in vogue. Yet when French poet André Breton first saw the work of this manly all-American artist—specifically, his images of figures with masklike faces, stunned into inaction by vast empty cityscapes—he saw no guileless realist. Instead, he declared Hopper an honorary member of his French surrealist group. Hopper, long known for his unwillingness to credit his influences or to explain the subjects of his pictures, typically played along with whichever script he was given. “The critics give you an identity,” he once said. “And sometimes, even, you give it a push.”

The National Gallery’s current exhibition, Edward Hopper, is the most complete survey of Hopper’s work ever seen in D.C. Its 96 paintings and works on paper reveal the true complexity—and strangeness—of Hopper’s work. Most of the famous, endlessly reproduced pictures are here, including 1942’s Nighthawks, with its film-noir atmosphere and glum nightlife refugees whose features are picked out by harsh greenish-yellow fluorescent light. Also on view are many of Hopper’s early etchings, his New England watercolors, and his countless vignettes featuring awkwardly proportioned female subjects framed by slanting, bleaching rays of sunlight. These images are not simply the products of intuition and self invention—nor do many of them pass for something that might plausibly be called “realism.” Instead, Hopper’s works are dependent on a number of disparate elements: his formative experiences with French painting, his interests in French literature and American film, and his many years working for print media prior to his success in fine art. Neither of the two most popular critical views of Hopper—the rugged isolationist or the moody painter of alienation—really suffices to explain his recurring subjects, his palette, or the weird collision of visual codes he developed during his career.

What Hopper’s work is mostly about is a distinctly modern conception of pictorial space. He offered views of a world broken down and processed into orderly architectonic relationships—plane against plane, shadow against light. He depicted middle- or lower-class people struggling to relate to the newly constructed urban environment. He also showed how movies and still photography were changing the way people saw—and painted—the world. Whether Hopper thought these new spaces were dehumanizing is hard to say. He wasn’t just reluctant to talk about influences; he seldom revealed emotion, be it his subjects’ or his own. The supposed alienation of Hopper’s figures is often simple ambiguity—even disinterest.

Sun in an Empty Room, oil on canvas, 1963

Before he could support himself with his art, Hopper worked as an illustrator for various New York advertising firms. Much of his fine-art output during this time was limited to prints. His early etchings serve to highlight his taste for bold compositions, filled with simplified arrangements of hard-edged shapes. The 1921 etching Night Shadows is a standout, establishing the elements that would preoccupy Hopper later in his career: A lone figure moves through a darkened, deserted city, silhouetted by strong unnatural light and confronted by a corner. Completely dwarfing him is the immense shadow of a street lamp, bisecting his path and throwing huge, dark abstract angles and curves against the façade of the building above him. Looking at this psychologically fraught image, it’s easy to find affinities with surrealists like Giorgio de Chirico, who so often depicted figures enveloped in shadow, navigating long, narrow streets through dreamlike cities.

In the mid-’20s, Hopper turned to watercolors to document the buildings he saw during trips to Gloucester, Mass. The images are bright, clear, and strangely airless. The houses Hopper depicted in paintings like Haskell’s House (1924) are Victorian behemoths with busy façades—not modern at all, and terribly unfashionable at the time Hopper painted them. Yet the simplicity of the shapes with which Hopper rendered these familiar, even tacky buildings was new—he approached old structures with a modern eye.

Though there’s a world of difference in tone between Hopper’s etchings, watercolors, and later oils, all his pictures tend to break the world down into the same discrete units. Hopper’s mature oil paintings often depicted darkened New York interiors. Hotel Room (1931) is broken up into strong vertical elements accented with diagonal wedges of shadow. A handful of organic shapes and details are offered: A woman sits on the edge of her bed, reading. Her face is obscured by shadow; what defines her are the simple stripes of light running along the tops of her right thigh and forearm and across her right shoulder. The picture is a miracle of economy and subdued, matter-of-fact paint handling. It’s easy to see how this work must have influenced Richard Diebenkorn’s figurative work: Both painters typically preferred simple monochromatic shapes and only made a few key decisions regarding spatial experience and the action of light.

It’s a common misconception that Hopper had a poor grasp of color. True, his predilection for harsh tonal contrasts, deep saturated greens, and pasty, undefined flesh aren’t always easy on the eye. Yet his work clearly borrows a great deal from the vibrant palette of French impressionists and postimpressionists. His trips to Paris in 1906 and 1909 and his study of artists like Degas, whose compositions he emulated, cleaned up his palette dramatically.

Two self-portraits show how Hopper’s color changed. The first was completed around 1903n1906, when Hopper studied with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. Henri was the influential teacher of a number of Ashcan School painters, and this portrait reflects his influence. The background is an undifferentiated mass of deep chocolate brown; the paint throughout is applied with thick, choppy strokes, marking it as a student work. Diagonal ridges of paint define Hopper’s cheekbones; his hooded, red-rimmed eyes peer out from deep shadows. It’s a dramatic piece, communicating Hopper’s hopes for his nascent career as an artist.

The self-portrait from 1925n1930 is radically different. Hopper no longer looks like a tortured romantic; instead, he’s an amiable Everyman, peering out from underneath the brim of his hat in an evenly lit bare room. Though the atmosphere is muted, Hopper’s color choices are complex, even eccentric. “Is that a green jacket?” someone asked at the show’s preview. Sure enough, Hopper’s dark tie and jacket are both dotted with greenish-yellow accents. In the shadows of his blue shirt are traces of magenta underpainting. The background is made up of patches of pale creamy ochres, greens, and violets, all colliding and canceling one another out. The orange triangle of floor in the lower right and the vertical trim of a doorway seem as important as the artist himself.

There are many subjects that didn’t suit Hopper’s approach to color and form. He was hopeless, for example, with seascapes. His 1922 etching The Cat Boat and a later oil painting, Ground Swell (1939), are half-baked attempts to represent water. In the former, a few thin lines like cramped cursive—little cartoon peaks, really—lamely indicate waves. In the latter, the sea appears to be made of some viscous blue-green substance; the stuff lies in thick furrows, holding both a buoy and a sailboat completely immobile. Only the boat in each picture seems like a decent compilation of specific shapes. Hopper clearly liked that boat but didn’t have many ideas about where to put it.

As with the sea, so with trees: Every edge and face of the houses in Second Story Sunlight (1960) are crisply rendered in contrasting shades of pale creamy yellow and cool blue-violet. But the trees filling the right-hand third of the picture are utterly slack and undefined, a mass of feathery green, yellow, and black marks. Seldom do Hopper’s trees appear informed by direct observation—or even given much thought. He saw buildings with a fierce clarity, but anything lacking hard, reassuring geometry turns to mush in his hands.

That’s the crux of the difference between Hopper and the impressionists: Whereas the impressionists were fascinated by recording the effects of light and color as they danced across surfaces, Hopper was, again, only interested in the way they defined volume and space—preferably as they danced across large, simple, man-made structures.

For example, the fruits lining the foreground of Tables for Ladies (1930) are invented, entirely conventional spheroids. Hopper gives only enough visual cues for the viewer to conclude, This must be a grapefruit. That makes the idea of Hopper as a realist slippery, conditional. He offers recognizable objects and alludes to narrative but shows no interest in creating convincing illusions. Cézanne describes and models the world intimately. Hopper simply sums up objects, placing them in broad categories, picking out contours and locating them in space, but doing little else.

His figures, too, were often vague and half-invented. The female nude in Morning in a City (1944) gazes out at a sharply rendered city. But she herself looks like a lumpy troll, as if she wandered out of a painting by modern primitive Henri Rousseau. Hopper typically made studies for his figures but often relied on memory while painting, and proportions could get lost in the shuffle. This woman’s nakedness lacks eroticism, and as a result seems alien, disturbing—as nondescript as Hopper’s trees and waves.

The emotional states of his figures are invariably elusive. We have no clues to what this woman might be thinking or what she’s about to do. Hopper often provides sexual tension between figures—as with the blank-faced businessman and his buxom secretary, her lips sharply delineated crimson, in Office at Night (1940). Other times, his figures seem entirely unaware of one another, as in the absently staring couple in Sea Watchers (1952). But there are no revelations about character, spirituality, love—only grim exteriority.

The conventional view of much of the midcentury abstraction that Hopper disliked—say, Jackson Pollock’s works—is that it flattened pictorial space and treat the canvas as an arena for action, obscurely revealing the artist’s emotions. That sort of revelation was impossible for Hopper. So it’s no surprise that, toward the end of his life (he died in 1967), Hopper discarded those half-remembered, half-invented figures altogether and instead showed an empty room and a window with some light flooding in—and nothing else. Sun in an Empty Room (1963) is just what the title promises, and it elegantly closes out the exhibition. The influence of abstraction is finally at work here, some critics would say. But Hopper’s abstraction traveled in the reverse direction of prevailing trends. He didn’t flatten pictorial space, he deepened it and tried to subtract himself from whatever dramas might be unfolding within it. People were necessary props; rooms, façades, and windows were his true subjects. Hopper’s imaginative space is beautiful, but at its heart is an existential wasteland.