The most significant Realist painter of the 20th century, Edward Hopper cultivated a quintessentially American aesthetic marked by isolated streets, nighttime diners and pensive bedroom interiors. His evocative images, characterized by a singular and powerful sense of light, profoundly influenced a generation of photographers and filmmakers that followed. Sotheby’s upcoming American Art auction (23 May, New York) presents two of the most important Hopper drawings to come to auction in the past decade — Study for 'Summer Evening’ and Study for ‘A Woman in the Sun’, both from The Collection of Steve Martin. Read below to discover how Hopper’s work influenced contemporary photographers from Robert Adams to Gregory Crewdson.
Edward Hopper rarely spoke of his drawings. To him, they were studio materials—evidence of previous experiments in light, perspective, and storytelling. He seldom exhibited his drawings publicly and when he did, it was at the behest of an insistent curator or editor. Art historian Lloyd Goodrich had convinced the artist to include seventeen drawings in his 1950 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and then again at Hopper’s retrospective there in 1964. In both cases, the drawings were not reproduced in the catalogue.
Despite an outward reluctance, Hopper felt a strong personal connection to his drawings – he kept thousands of them from all stages of his career. They were intimate records of his thoughts and he referenced them frequently as he revisited earlier themes and concepts. Hopper’s drawings, especially his studies for major oils, are the most illuminating examples of his conscious transformations of the observed world and reveal experiments with multiple viewpoints and subtle variations in light and shadow.
Study for 'Summer Evening’ and Study for ‘A Woman in the Sun’, both from The Collection of Steve Martin are preparatory studies for two of the artist’s most well-known oils. The Whitney Museum of American Art's landmark 2013 exhibition Hopper Drawing underscored the wide-ranging influence of Hopper’s drawings and their unending dialogue with popular culture, cinema, and photography. Hopper, for his part, had developed an interest in photography as early as 1907 as a young man in Paris.
Both of these drawings were included in Edward Hopper & Company, an ambitious exhibition held at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco in 2009. The exhibition sought to examine Hopper’s paintings and drawings through the lens of photography and, in turn, how his works have influenced the language of photography. The artist’s quiet contemplation of quotidian subjects and his penetrating study of the psyche are clearly referenced, both consciously and unconsciously, in the photographs of Gregory Crewdson, Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin, Carrie Mae Weems, and many others. Filmmakers including Alfred Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, David Lynch, and Terrence Malick have also noted Hopper's influence.
Photographer Robert Adams wrote of Hopper's works, “They began to give me something lasting, a realization of the poignancy of light. With it, all places were interesting … Hopper’s pictures still instruct and delight in ways that are new to me.”2 In the mid-1970s, Adams began a series of photographs focusing on suburban neighborhoods near his former home in Longmont, Colorado, and in the spirit of Hopper captured places often dismissed as uninteresting– with his nocturnal American landscapes sharing much with Study for 'Summer Evening.’
Like Hopper, Gregory Crewdson’s photographs share an interest in still filmic moments with implied narratives placed in decidedly American environments. “Emerging from a distinctly American tradition, Hopper’s work deals with ideas of beauty, sadness, alienation, and desire," said Crewdson, "I think it is now virtually impossible to read America visually without referring back to the archive of visual images created by artists who found inspiration in Hopper’s paintings. His art has shaped the essential themes and interests in the work of so many contemporary painters, writers, and, above all, photographers and filmmakers.”3
Among these is German filmmaker Wim Wenders, know for his films Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987). Of Hopper's 1930 painting Early Sunday Morning in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Wenders noted, "For me that’s a picture with a quite stimulating reference to photography as well as to cinema… It’s the kind of picture in which one expects that a sudden movement will take place in the next moment and that the light will change – for example, like a frozen image. It bears a strong affinity to photography, but actually it’s less rigid than a photograph.”4 Hopper’s influence reveals itself in much of Wenders’ filmography as well as in his continuing body of photography.
As in Study for ‘A Woman in the Sun’, Hopper was also drawn to the bedroom and its implications of intimate privacy and erotic charge, which would influence the photographic aesthetics of Crewdson and Nan Goldin. In the exhibition catalogue for Hopper Drawings, curator Carter E. Foster wrote of the artist, “He consistently sought to make the settings his characters inhabit express something of their internal state of being...More specifically, he turned the bedroom into a loaded space in which he could explore its narrative and symbolic potential with the figure in a charged, particular type of setting. It appears early in his art and remains a subject of exploration throughout his career."5
In their story-telling suggestivity, a moment captured but implying much more, both Study for 'Summer Evening’ and Study for ‘A Woman in the Sun’ powerfully embody the ways in which Hopper's oeuvre would indelibly influence contemporary photography and cinema. Hopper's profound interests in ordinary subjects, in subtle variations in light, and in the narrative possibilities of a still image have forever shaped the landscape of contemporary photography and continue to influence artists of all media today.
1. as quoted in Edward Hopper & Company, San Francisco, California, 2009, n.p.
2. as quoted in Edward Hopper & Company, San Francisco, California, 2009, n.p.
3. as quoted in “Crewdson on Hopper,” Williams College Museum of Art.
4. as quoted in Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, New York, 1995, p. 758.
5. Carter E. Foster, “The Bedroom” in Hopper Drawings, New York, 2013, p. 204.