Among the most significant painters of the twentieth century, Edward Hopper cultivated a quintessentially American aesthetic marked by evocative images that captured the subtle intrigue and psychological complexity of modern urban existence. His contemplation of the commonplace and his penetrating study of the psyche burrow deep beneath the unremarkable surfaces of archetypal American subjects: nighttime diners, dimly-lit hotel interiors, and forlorn vernacular architecture. Though based on a fundamental commitment to naturalistic representation, Hopper’s work transcends mere narrative illustration in search of the symbolic and suggestive. His art serves as a form of sublimation, a deeply personal expression of his inner emotional response to the physical world. Summarizing the difficulty of imbuing his paintings with incommunicable thought, Hopper once remarked: “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint it” (as quoted in Edward Hopper & Company, San Francisco, California, 2009, n.p.).
Painted in 1935, Shakespeare at Dusk captures the visual poetry of twilight in a large city, when the cacophonous noise of streetcars and elevated trains begins to acquiesce to the stillness of night. This Central Park scene belongs to Hopper’s celebrated series of New York cityscapes—subject matter he explored early in his career while studying under Robert Henri and continued until his death in 1967. A lifelong lover of poetry and prose, Shakespeare at Dusk is among the only major works in Hopper’s oeuvre that overtly references the profound influence of literature on his emotional response to specific times of day, particularly the evening. The poems that he quoted, often as explanations for his own art, frequently focus on the mood of dusk—its sense of mystery, anxiety, and eros born out of the varying effects of light and shadow.
Based on Henri’s teaching, Hopper’s formative New York canvases, such as Blackwell’s Island (1911 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Queensborough Bridge (1913, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), and East River (1920-23, Private collection), are devoted to scenes along the city’s waterways near his former studio at 53 East 59th Street. Hopper did not return to specific New York subject matter until the late 1920s when he painted The City (1927, University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona), a second iteration of Blackwell’s Island (1928, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas), Williamsburg Bridge (1928, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts). In the following decades, Hopper ventured further uptown for subject matter, portraying the Harlem River in Macomb’s Dam Bridge (1935, Brooklyn Museum, New York), Central Park in Bridle Path (1939, Private collection), and Riverside Park in August in the City (1945, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida). Nearer his studio at 3 Washington Square North, where he lived and worked from 1913 until his death, Hopper based Early Sunday Morning (1930, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) on shops along Seventh Avenue and Nighthawks (1942, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois) on a restaurant on the corner of Eleventh Street and Seventh Avenue. In a 1935 interview for the New York Post, the reporter Archer Winsten asked what Hopper did for fun. He replied: “I get most of my pleasure out of the city itself” (as quoted in Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, New York, 1995, updated & expanded 2007, p. 270).
Shakespeare at Dusk depicts two statues cloaked in shadow near the deserted southern end of the Central Park Mall, which is illuminated by the vibrant afterglow of sunset on the horizon behind the shadows of high-rises at the western end of the park. The inclusion of identifiable modern skyscrapers is exceedingly rare in Hopper’s oeuvre and the present work is one of only a few New York scenes where the exact physical location is clearly apparent. In the foreground, Hopper presents John Quincy Adams Ward’s full-standing sculptural portrait of the celebrated playwright William Shakespeare, with his head bowed in contemplative thought. Describing the scarcity of recognizable buildings in his work, Hopper stated: “I think a lot about the interiors of big cities. I probably try to represent something universally valid” (as quoted in Gerald Matt, Western Motel: Edward Hopper and Contemporary Art, Nuremberg, Germany, 2008, p. 7). While a universal representation of a city at twilight, Shakespeare at Dusk is an unmistakably specific New York image.
In the artist’s record book next to a small sketch of the present canvas, Hopper’s wife, Jo, wrote: “Shakespeare at Dusk. Mall, Central Park about 5 P.M. Nov. [November] dusk with pink glow in sky back of trees. Foreground grey pavement, slightly warmed by glow in sky overhead (offstage). 2 statues on high pedestals—L. [left] Shakespeare—green; R. [right] Columbus not distinct. Foreground R. [right] tall bare tree trunk dark. Foliage across middle green & brownish. Red lit electric sign outside park showing thru foliage not well explained. Big unlit sign U.S. top of building L. [left] back. No other signs on windows lit yet. Silhouette of buildings outside park across back grey blue” (Artist's Record Book, vol. II, p. 9). Hopper consigned Shakespeare at Dusk to the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery on November 21, 1935, shortly after completing the work in his studio. As was typical of his working method, he made several detailed pencil sketches on location that later served as references for the final oil. The ambiguity of narrative content in Hopper's paintings, like Shakespeare at Dusk, sparks the imagination and provokes an endless interpretation of meaning. Loath to provide commentary on his own art, Hopper did explain: "There is a certain fear and anxiety, a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city" (as quoted in David Anfam, "Rothko's Hopper: A Strange Wholeness," ed. Sheena Wagstaff, Edward Hopper, London, 2004, p. 39).
The preeminent Hopper scholar Gail Levin comments: “Hopper’s mature cityscapes were generally undisturbed by human presence. There is often an eerie feeling born of this desertion, this absence of activity” (Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist, New York, 1980, p. 45). When an interviewer commented on the lack of figuration, Hopper observed, “It’s probably a reflection of my own, if I may say, loneliness. I don’t know. It could be the whole human condition” (as quoted in Gail Levin, Edward Hopper, New York, 1984, p. 69).
The present work is singular in Hopper’s oeuvre in its direct reference to a literary figure that had a significant influence on the artist’s career. While most of his paintings contain elements of poetic inspiration, few are as forthright as Shakespeare at Dusk. As Gail Levin suggests, the title of the painting invites a comparison to the bard’s oft-quoted description of autumnal twilight:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73)
The darker connotations of the last lines may have been particularly meaningful to Hopper whose mother had passed away earlier that year on March 20, 1935 at the age of eighty-one. The loss of his only surviving parent appears to have activated Hopper’s own conception of his mortality and his interest in evening’s waning light, as seen in Shakespeare at Dusk and House at Dusk (1935, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia) of the same year.
Hopper was a lifelong lover of literature and poetry. As a young boy, he discovered English classics and French and Russian translations in his father’s library, which he often illustrated with his own drawings and sketches. This practice continued into his early career, when he worked rather begrudgingly as a commercial illustrator for a variety of periodicals and magazines. In his adulthood, he indicated a fondness for Paul Verlaine, Marcel Proust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Robert Frost and Henrik Ibsen. It was through study with Henri at the New York School of Art that he became intensely interested in literature and its relationship to the visual arts. According to his classmate Rockwell Kent, Henri’s pupils often talked of literature. They discussed Verlaine, Eugene Sue, Charles Baudelaire, and the French Symbolist poets, which Kent described as “in keeping with the slightly morbid overtone of Henri’s influence’” (as quoted in Gail Levin, “Edward Hopper’s Evening,” The Connoisseur, September 1980, p. 56).
Stemming from his early interest in literature and Henri’s philosophical teachings, Hopper’s paintings surpass an exact transcription of a physical location to convey a literary sense of mood and emotion. Most often these personal expressions are tied to the artist’s own feelings towards a specific time of day, as in Shakespeare at Dusk. Writing on Henri’s influence and Hopper’s sensitive evocation of the evening hour, Gail Levin states: “Hopper always managed to extract an authentic sense of mood. On this subject, Robert Henri offered more specific advice: ‘Low art is just telling things, as, there is the night. High art gives the feeling of night. The latter is nearer reality, although the former is a copy’” ("Edward Hopper's Evening," The Connoisseur, vol. 205, no. 823, September 1980, p. 56.).
Hopper’s fascination with the ‘feel of night’ began as early as 1914 with his most ambitious French composition, Soir Bleu (1914). He continued the theme on his return to New York with his series of nocturnal etchings Night on the El Train (1918), Night in the Park (1921), and Night Shadows (1921), as well as in later paintings like Night Windows (1928, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Office at Night (1940, Whitney Museum of American Art), and Nighthawks. As in Shakespeare at Dusk, these works demonstrate Hopper’s attraction to certain qualities of the evening—mystery, silence, lust, and despair—which can also be detected in his favorite poetry. He quoted often from Verlaine’s “La Lune blanche,” which recalls the calm of the twilight hour seen in the present work.
The distinct emphasis on the time of day is apparent in his titles, which regularly indicate a general hour. His twilight imagery, such as Railroad Sunset (1929, Whitney Museum of American Art), House at Dusk and Cape Cod Evening (1939, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and the present work, recalls Goethe’s “Wanderer’s Nightsong,” a poem that he described as “an extraordinary visual picture” (as quoted in Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, New York, 1995, updated & expanded 2007, p. 266).
In this evocative image of Central Park at twilight, Shakespeare at Dusk Hopper masterfully conveys the sensation of early evening as the vestiges of sunlight fade and day cedes to night. He ruminates on the passage of time and the unknown associated with the oncoming darkness. While he often represents this idea in the form of voids, as in Automat (1927, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa) and Two Comedians (1966, Private collection), his treatment of this theme is more subtle and suggestive in the present work. Hopper radically rethought his art following his 1933 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Painted in 1935, Shakespeare at Dusk can be seen as a metaphor for the new direction of his work, one that would be less populated and increasingly existential.
Hopper’s art, like the poetry and prose that he loved, often suggests more than it reveals. “By refusing to be narrative and aiming instead at suggestive symbolic content,” writes Gail Levin, “Hopper at his best created paintings which express the psychological pulse of their time and yet speak for all time” (“Edward Hopper’s Evening,” The Connoisseur, September 1980, p. 59). Hopper stated, “I look all the time for something that suggests something to me. I think about it. Just to paint a representation or a design is not hard, but to express a thought in a painting is. Thought is fluid. What you put on canvas is concrete, and it tends to direct the thought. The more you put on canvas the more you lose control of the thought. I’ve never been able to paint what I set out to paint” (as quoted in Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: As Illustrator, New York, 1979, p. 6). Dusk, with its rapidly fading light and evolving hues, manifests this statement.