Edward Hopper: Biography, Paintings & Drawings

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn about American Realist artist Edward Hopper. In 1910s New York, he pursued a career in illustration until he could support himself by painting. Hopper created iconic images exploring American urban life.

Early Years

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) grew up in Nyack, New York, where his middle-class family encouraged his interest in art. He went to the Correspondence School of Illustrating and then attended the New York School of Art, where he studied with artists William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri. The latter, a member of the Ashcan School(an informal group of artists who painted what they saw in the poorer neighborhoods of New York City), encouraged his students to portray life in realistic terms. In other words, don't make scenes more beautiful or paint all people as pretty models. The modern world was sometimes harsh and gritty, and Realists believed artists shouldn't be afraid to show it. Among Henri's other students were George Bellows and Rockwell Kent, two other Realists who painted and illustrated working-class life.

Hopper took three trips to France and Europe between 1906 and 1910. The work of French artists such as Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet appealed to him because they also portrayed local, modern life and everyday people, from laundresses and racetrack patrons to members of the struggling working classes. These artists worked in a realistic style and used strong compositional elements (the underlying forms that give an image its shapes) in their paintings. Hopper was also struck by the Impressionists' use of light and shadow. He wasn't swayed by the emerging modern art styles such as Cubism, which was more non-objective. Edward Hopper spent most of his life in New York City working in a realistic style.

Life as a Illustrator

At first, Hopper struggled to become known. As an illustrator, he learned how to etch. Etching is a process of making prints using acid and a metal plate. The artist covers the plate with a substance impervious to acid, called a ground. Then he draws lines into the ground with a sharp metal tool, revealing the metal plate beneath. The plate is then dipped in acid, which eats into the drawn lines, and creates an impression in the metal. Once cleaned, the plate is inked and printed. It results in drawings that can be reproduced in newspapers, magazines, and other printed materials. Hopper's etchings helped him earn a living as an illustrator and commercial artist. He created images for publications like Scribner's Magazine and worked for several New York City advertising agencies.

In 1913, Hopper exhibited at the Armory Show, the International Exhibition of Modern Art sponsored by the Association of Painters and Sculptors. It was the first major exhibition on modern art in America. But Hopper's realistic style, his representational images of people, buildings and landscapes, contrasted with that of most of his contemporaries. Many artists were moving into abstraction, a style in which line and color existed without reference to familiar figures.

He continued his illustration work, although it didn't make him happy. But while making the etchings, he honed his drawing skills and developed themes that would stay with him the rest of his career. In Night on the El Train, done in 1918, isolated figures are alone even though they ride in the same train car, looking out onto a cityscape. Their faces are in shadow. The car itself is part of an elevated train, a symbol of modern urban life. The image conveys the loneliness of city life.

Night on the El Train, 1918
Night on the El Train

Despite an initial lack of success as a painter, Hopper stuck to his ideas. In 1920, at age 37, he mounted his first one-man show of paintings and his career finally began to move forward. In 1924, he married Josephine 'Jo' Nivison, a fellow artist whom he'd met in Robert Henri's painting class. A year later, he sold all the work out of another one-man show and was finally able to leave illustration work behind.

The Paintings

Hopper developed his style by the 1920s and continued to refine it. He focused on similar subject matter his entire life. Many of his paintings explore urban life, and they convey a sense of loneliness and isolation in their use of solitary figures, night scenes and shadows, and vacant spaces.

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