Return to Articles


May 11 - September 15, 2002 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara

by Kathy Zimmerer

Edward Hopper, “The El Station,”
1908, o/c, 20 x 29”. Courtesy of the
Whitney Museum of American Art, New
York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest.

Edward Hopper, "Queensborough Bridge," 1913,
o/c 25.5 x 57.5". Whitney Museum of American
Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest.

Edward Hopper, "Statue at Park
Entrance," 1918-20, o/c, 24 x 29". Whitney
Museum of AmericanArt, New York;
Josephine N. Hopper Bequest.

A rich exhibition of Edward Hopper’s early work and that of his fellow painters of the Ash Can School is a rewarding look at the beauty and transient character of the urban landscape. Over 30 artists who were working in New York during the early decades of the 20th Century, and who represent the Ash Can School, including George Luks, John Sloan, Everett Shin and George Bellows, as well as Hopper--represented by a selection of early works--are in this exhibition of 50 paintings organized by the Whitney Museum of Modern Art. Many of these artists were students of Robert Henri, who is known for his loose brushstrokes and deep, luminous colors. Henri encouraged his students to look at the urban scene with a new realism shorn of the stiff trappings of academic style. The artists’ portrayals of the endlessly fascinating vistas of a vibrant and bustling city earned them such contemporary labels as the “Apostles of Ugliness” and the “Ash Can School.”

For anyone who is familiar with the taut beauty of Hopper’s more famous later work, the early work is a surprise and revelation. Statue at Park Entrance is an impressionistic scene of swirling brushstrokes and dramatic darks and lights. The figures are mere daubs of paint to balance out the composition; but his familiar and apparently innate sense of isolation and hispreference for an urban scene devoid of people is found even in his early work. This scene shows a masterful sense of abstraction and the fluid modeling that would become much more refined as his style progressed.

John Sloan’s marvelous slice of life painting, Backyards, Greenwich Village owes much to the American Impressionists. Cropped at the window where a small girl peers out, the scene is a touching vignette of inner city life with activity crammed into every nook and cranny. Two small children make a snowman, two cats frolic in the snow, while lines of laundry swing in the wind. Sloan’s palette glows with an inner light as pale yellow walls are juxtaposed with white snow, and then are topped with the delicate pink bricks of the tenement building. Tiny brilliant accents of red and black only make the pale colors more luminous.

Of note is a superb Sloan, Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street, that encapsulates the bustle and beauty of a great city at night. Under the elevated train a whole spectrum of city life is played out: pedestrians run to catch a show, walk under the street lamps and meet each other. Above the train, the city lights further illuminate a rich sky of brilliant turquoise highlighted with vivid pink tints. The entire painting is busy, with many complex compositional elements, but a unified portrait of a city that never sleeps emerges.

Hopper’s The El Station is an elegant study in refined abstraction. The human figures are mere blurs in the geometric, urban cityscape that Hopper represents. Hopper has refined the forms to the rectangular march of the chimneys and the long horizontal line of the train tracks. The cold light of a winter afternoon is convincingly portrayed as a subtle glow emanating from Hopper’s muted palette of white, gray, terracotta, brown and black.

Also noteworthy is Hopper’s painting, Queensborough Bridge, which is indebted to the French Impressionists in its shifting and subtle atmospheric effects, yet rooted in an American aesthetic of scale and industrial might. This bridge dwarfs the lone house beneath its span, and the composition is enveloped in a silvery white light that makes the whole shimmer with color and movement.

This is a notewothy exhibition because of the rarity of the early Hoppers and the strong work of his fellow Ash Can painters. It is a pleasure to view the loose and atmospheric handling of the urban scene, and to track the emerging development of Hopper as the master of a restrained and powerful urban realism.

John Sloan, "Backyards, Greenwich
Village," 1914, o/c, 26 x 32".

John Sloan, "Sixth Avenue Elevated
at Third Street," 1928, o/c, 30 x 40".