Edward Hopper was the greatest American realist painter of the 20th century. Yet to label Hopper a realist also risks misstating the peculiar quality of his genius.
The world of Hopper's paintings feels deeply familiar, but it is also deeply strange - preternaturally silent, austere and inward looking, peopled by isolated, disconnected individuals trapped in moods of reverie, anticipation or despair in unprepossessing spaces that only emphasize the emotional distance between them.
Hopper's most famous images - lonely city storefronts and apartment buildings, lamp-lit hotel rooms and offices, gingerbread seaside homes and rocky beaches splashed by slanting shafts of sunlight - are the stuff of realistic depiction, but he also made them uncanny, as if they were clues to a riddle that we can never quite unravel.
If this is realism, it is a vision of the real pared down to psychological essentials, an apprehension of the everyday that has the lurid clarity of a hallucination or a dream.
Hopper's beautiful and disturbing art is the subject of a major retrospective that opens today at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and is sure to be one of the highlights of the fall arts season.
Jointly organized by the National Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago, it presents nearly 100 of the artist's signature paintings and watercolors, including masterpieces such as Automat (1927), Drug Store (1927), Early Sunday Morning (1930), New York Movie (1939) and the iconic Nighthawks (1942).
Silent about images
Hopper was a poet of the ordinary and the commonplace whose art, on the surface at least, was as taciturn and understated as the man himself. He was famous for refusing to talk about his work - or about much of anything else - and he seemed genuinely aggrieved by others' attempts to provide narratives for his pictures.
The excellent catalog that accompanies the show notes that when critics pointed out the unmistakable erotic charge of his painting Office at Night (1940), in which he depicted a young businessman and his shapely secretary working alone after-hours, Hopper dismissed any sexual innuendo beyond the facts shown.
"Any more than this, the picture will have to tell," he said. "But I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote," he added, "for none is intended."
On another occasion, when a writer remarked on the aura of loneliness, alienation and anonymity that seems to pervade so many of his paintings, the artist's response was one of characteristic impatience: "One can make too much of the solitude thing," he complained.
Given that Hopper discovered the themes and motifs that would make him famous in his 40s, and stuck to them until his death some four decades later, one may be forgiven for suspecting the artist protested too much.
Yet it is true that nothing much really happens in Hopper's paintings, where everything is implied but nothing is stated directly.
People, buildings and landscapes seem perpetually suspended in a stillness that only hints at volcanic human dramas churning below the surface. One intuitively feels the gravitational tug of a story line, though its precise contours are impossible to discover.
As the curtain rose
One clue to these arrested dramas may lie in the fact that Hopper loved the theater, and many of his scenes recall stage sets at the moment the curtain rises.
In Room in New York (1932), for example, a man and woman seen through an upper-story apartment window quietly avoid emotional connection.
He sits at a table absorbed in his newspaper, while she places a desultory finger on one of the piano's keys. Presumably, we are too far away to hear the note sounded, but we may suspect it will fall on deaf ears inside the apartment as well.
In Automat, a young woman sits alone sipping coffee across the table from an empty chair. Is she waiting for someone? Will he or she come? Or has the woman already decided that no one will arrive, that she will spend the evening alone?
Hopper's painting suggests many possibilities but affirms none. It diagrams a secret mystery of the heart for which there are no clues beyond the bare facts the artist has provided.
There's a poignant melancholy in these vignettes that has nothing to do with Hopper's rendering of architectural detail or realistic treatment of the human figure (both of which were adequate, but no more).
Rather, the mood is generated entirely by Hopper's treatment of light, which in his paintings becomes a living presence. Everything else in a Hopper might seem frozen in time, suspended in a motionless eternity of unrealized potential. But the light - now flat and harsh, now dancing mischievously among Hopper's deep shadows - is everywhere pregnant with meaning, carrying with it the animating force of a revelation.
You can see it in the wonderful watercolors of vernacular architecture Hopper started making in the 1920s, after he and his wife began summering in New England.
The watercolors were Hopper's first real commercial success, and sales from them allowed him to finally quit his job as a commercial illustrator, which he loathed, and devote himself to subjects he loved.
The Mansard Roof (1923), for example, which Hopper painted in the fishing village of Gloucester, Mass., takes as its real subject the area's shimmering light and air, curator Carol Troyen says in a fine catalog essay.
"A series of lively, scribbling strokes variously suggest trees waving in the breeze and their shadows dancing on the house," Troyen writes.
"Hopper sacrificed no detail - he was scrupulous even in the profile of the chimney pots - while creating an image in which movement depicted on the surface of the [paper] evokes the softness of the summer breeze."
But Hopper will always be remembered most for his images of the city and the anonymous men and women who fill its overlooked backwaters with their strange admixture of desperation and longing.
It was his genius to recognize in them the equivalent of what the French poet Charles Baudelaire had called the "heroism of modern life," but transplanted from 19th-century Europe's broad boulevards to the quintessential 20th-century American metropolis.
Hopper's New York, created in the troubled decades between the two World Wars, is that city of fitful dreams, conjured up by a master illusionist whose deeply strange vision of the real - endlessly imitated, parodied and recycled by mass media and pop culture - now seems virtually inseparable from our own memory of America's recent past.
ON EXHIBIT Edward Hopper runs through Jan. 21 / / The National Gallery, Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington / / 202-737-4215 or nga.gov
ONLINE See more examples of Edward Hopper's works at baltimoresun.com / hopper