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TRAVELING IN STYLE : NIGHTHAWKS & BROWNSTONES : New York Has Changed Dramatically Since Painter Edward Hopper Portrayed It, But Traces of a Hopper-esque Past Endure

October 16, 1994|Gail Levin | Levin, who lives in New York, is author of numerous books on Edward Hopper, including "Hopper's Places," and a forthcoming biography (both from Knopf).

EDWARD HOPPER--THE QUINTESSENTIAL REALIST PAINTER OF 20th-Century America and an artist who has been extremely influential in many areas of American popular culture--began his long acquaintance with New York City in 1899, when he first arrived there at age 17 from his home just up the Hudson in Nyack. He spent seven years in New York art schools, then made three trips to Europe before settling down in 1910 back in New York, where he lived until his death in 1967.

New York in 1899 was in transition from a 19th-Century city to a modern metropolis with the new skyscrapers that became its trademark. The growing city bustled with palpable excitement. Hopper preferred the smaller row houses and other remnants of an older, more familiar way of life, but he was also attracted to the lively theaters on Broadway, the rowdy burlesque shows and inexpensive luncheonettes and second-floor Chinese restaurants. And he painted the city's automats, movie palaces, theaters, offices, apartments and cheap hotels with such austerity and conviction that his views of them seem to embody the very character of modern cities. Most of the sites that inspired him have vanished, the city's last remaining automat closing only a few years ago.

One painting more than any other has caught the world's imagination and symbolizes Hopper's New York: "Nighthawks," his masterpiece of 1942 (which now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago). The all-night diner with its four lonely figures has long since attained the status of an icon of 20th-Century urban life. Contemporary artists, designers and cinematographers regularly appropriate the painting. "Nighthawks," Hopper once noted, "was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet." The vintage eatery he painted has not survived, but an unusual triangular spit of land in Greenwich Village, where Greenwich and Seventh avenues meet Eleventh Street, suggests the original site.

According to Hopper, another of his best-known paintings, "Early Sunday Morning" (1930), depicted a scene nearby, in the same neighborhood. With its prominent barber pole standing in front of heavily corniced row houses with shop windows on the ground floors, the site was reportedly found on lower Seventh Avenue. But many a Brooklynite thinks he has spotted a similar street in Park Slope or Brooklyn Heights.

Hopper moved to Greenwich Village in 1913 and made it his home base. He came to know the area especially well and found many of his subjects there. Yet he branched out tirelessly throughout the city, finding sites to portray all the way from Manhattan Bridge on the Lower East Side up to 155th Street in Harlem, where he sketched Macomb's Dam Bridge on the Harlem River for a 1935 painting.

For 54 years, until he died, Hopper lived on the top floor of 3 Washington Square North. The building was once a haven for artists and writers, from John Dos Passos to Rockwell Kent to William Glackens. Today, it is the offices of New York University's School of Social Work. Had Hopper lived in Europe, his house would surely be a museum, but in this diffident and blase American metropolis, there's not even a plaque on the building's exterior.

AWARENESS OF HOPPER IS GREATER WHERE THE ARTIST GREW UP, 40 MILES UP the Hudson River in Nyack. Some citizens of this once-sleepy town raised funds to restore Hopper's boyhood home, which had been built by the artist's grandfather in the mid-19th Century (see Guidebook). Hopper continued to visit the house all his life, since his sister lived there until she died. Although there are no original Hoppers on view, the house is quite evocative of his painting. His canvas "Summer Evening" (1947) presents a once-romantic couple squabbling on a porch that has a layout quite like that of his boyhood home. And in 1949, he painted a view he had cherished all his life, looking down the house's central staircase and out the doorway toward the Hudson River.

Even after Hopper left Nyack, he never lost his love of rivers and nautical life. Some of his first paintings of New York depict scenes along the East River--"Blackwell's Island," "Queensborough Bridge" and "East River." If Blackwell's Island, now called Roosevelt Island and much changed by modern housing, is unrecognizable today, the Queensborough Bridge at 59th Street, then a new engineering marvel, looks much the same as it did in 1913 when Hopper painted it. On an overcast day, the East River still turns the same soft blue-gray that the artist caught in his canvas.

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