American Art

Edward Hopper's Last Painting Takes The Stage

By Colton Klein

Two Comedians from 1966 is an existential tour de force that represents the culmination of Edward Hopper’s career. His final painting, it is a seminal and poignant work that embodies the most important and defining themes of his art. Before it comes to auction in Sotheby's American Art Sale (16 November, New York), discover more about Hopper's dramatic farewell painting.

G iven his lifelong fascination with the theater and film, it is appropriate that Edward Hopper chose the stage as the subject of his final work. In Two Comedians Hopper presents himself and his wife, Jo, onstage, about to take their final bow, before turning to walk into the unknown. Throughout Hopper’s career, Jo, an artist herself, had been both muse and model for her husband, appearing in a number of his paintings. In this dramatic vignette, the husband and wife hold hands and gesture tenderly to one another, subtly acknowledging the significant role Jo has played both in Hopper's life and his art.

From the very beginning of his career, theater appears as an important subject and metaphor in Hopper's oeuvre. Solitary Figure in a Theatre, one of Hopper's earliest known works from circa 1902–4, presents an isolated female figure seated in a empty auditorium. Hopper continuously returned to such imagery throughout his career. He was an avid theater-goer, enjoying everything from puppetry to Shakespeare and Shaw, and for years kept the ticket stubs from the many plays he attended.

In works such as 1939's New York Movie in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the theater once again appears overtly. In many other of his paintings, however, Hopper evoked theatrical elements obliquely through stage-like settings and a sense of paused narrative. The appeal of theater was manifold for Hopper; the stage combined elements of artifice and performance with those of anonymity and voyeurism — central themes of Hopper's artistic investigation.

Blonde woman in a blue outfit standing alongside the dimly lit wall of a movie theater.
Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939. Image Courtesy of VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

As with theater, Hopper's interest in clowns, or pierrot characters began early in life, while he was studying in Paris and is most notably realized in Soir Bleu from 1914, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In this stage-like scene, the melancholy figure of the clown appears isolated within a crowded café. Hopper felt an affinity with performers, seeing them as fellow outsiders and sharing the loneliness he associated with this existence and indeed, the clown in Soir Bleu bears some similarity to Hopper in build and appearance. In Two Comedians, Hopper makes his reference more directly, presenting himself and his wife as isolated pierrots, cropping the image so as to eliminate the audience altogether. The darkened and empty stage behind them imbues the scene with the sense of mystery and narrative interruption that is characteristic of Hopper at his best.

An 18th century painting of a man in a white commedia dell'arte costume.
Jean Antoine Watteau, Pierrot, circa 1718–19. Image Courtesy of RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

The sketches for Two Comedians are illustrative of Hopper's rigorous creative process. Throughout his career, he created relatively few oils, instead working through an idea with numerous sketches in order to achieve a composition that accurately distilled the essence of a narrative. Sketches for Two Comedians show that Hopper explored several more complex variations before settling on the final composition. Iterations included the two protagonists sashaying at the back of the theater and Hopper leaping on stage while Jo climbed on to join him. As in In Two Comedians, by stripping away excessive motion and visual elements in his final oils, he was able to create visually arresting and enigmatic compositions that are imbued with tension and manifest the existential angst that accompanies modern life.

Seaside cafe with a clown seated at a table in full makeup with white face mask smoking a cigarette.
Edward Hopper, Soir Bleu, 1914. Image Courtesy of RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

In Two Comedians, he masterfully maintains the clarity of his vision, paring away visual distractions to present a starkly moving scene, one that is simultaneously autobiographical and universal as the viewer becomes both the audience and a participant in the Hoppers’ final performance. In this way, the work goes beyond an existential commentary on the role of the artist in society to become a gesture of ultimate parting from the public, manifesting Hopper’s statement that “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world…The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm.” 1

1. Reality, no, 1, Spring 1953, p. 8.

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