Edward Hopper Survives His Critics at the Whitney Museum
The Whitney Museum passed on purchasing Edward Hopper’s Room in New York when the painting was first shown, soon after it was made, at the 1932 inaugural Biennial Exhibition. The curators had selected 159 artists from around the country, and asked them to choose one example of their work for the groundbreaking show whose main purpose was to support living American artists during the depths of the Great Depression. To this end, the museum pledged $20,000 to acquire works from the show. As the exhibition’s curator C. Adolph Glassgold noted: “The Whitney Museum believes that the surest way of fostering a national art is by actual support in terms of purchases… this is a grave moment in the life of art in America, as it is in the survival of the artist.”
The Art Digest, predecessor to Arts Magazine, noted in December 1932 that the Whitney was widely praised for its bold financial support of contemporary artists. Famed critic Edward Allen Jewell added, “Considered in its entirety, the museum’s first biennial is a very inspired affair… No one unless badly troubled with prejudice, astigmatism or color-blindness could very well advance the argument that art isn’t being practiced vigorously and adventurously in America.” Jewell also pointed out that Hopper’s “grand” painting should have been a “tempting” purchase for the Whitney. Regardless, the publication marveled that over 20% of Biennial works were purchased by the Whitney or other institutions, and suggested that this could be a much-needed new model for supporting American artists
Ninety years later, Room in New York is again at the Whitney in Edward Hopper’s New York, a sweeping presentation encompassing over 200 paintings, drawings, and prints. Kim Conaty, the show’s curator, observed, “When I think of Hopper at that first Biennial, I love the idea of how the historic was contemporary once.” The image depicts a still room, as glimpsed through a window, occupied by a man reading a newspaper and a woman who is turned away from him, tapping the keys of a piano. The work was purchased four years after its debut at the Whitney by the Sheldon Art Museum from Hopper’s lifelong dealer Frank Rehn.
It’s curious that the work was still available in 1936, especially because Hopper had become one of America’s foremost contemporary artists, and was known as an artist who was slow to produce paintings. With an increasing focus on American art in general, contemporaneous reviews lean heavily on the Americanness of the Whitney’s 1932 offerings and of Hopper’s work itself. Earlier in the year, the Whitney’s Director Juliana Force described the rising “American Renaissance” as, “the awakening on the part of the public to the realization of the great movement toward a native art” – which was of course happening uptown in Harlem too, yet with little institutional support.
Hopper’s rise to fame was relatively quick once it started: yet he didn’t have his first exhibition until the age of 44, when he showed watercolors at Rehn’s gallery in 1924, but he quickly gained attention. In 1930, his painting House by the Railroad (1925) became the first by any artist to enter MoMA’s permanent collection and the Whitney Museum purchased Early Sunday Morning (1930) shortly thereafter. The MET bought Tables for Ladies (1930) in 1931. Only a few years earlier, reviews of Hopper’s work at the Rehn Gallery rather cynically and condescendingly predicted this institutional embrace. The Art Digest excerpted from the Sun:
There is such a thirst among Americans to see ourselves recorded, that it is altogether likely that Mr. Hopper’s productions will be over-valued rather than under. They are the simple: they present no obstacles to the ordinary person’s perceptions, and they will stand out well in a public gallery. Hence the galleries will acquire them and more ordinary people will huzzah.
And the compendium noted that critics at the Post rather agreed:
In looking at these canvases could one suppose for a fraction of a second that any one but an American painted them – an American who feels American life symbolized by the world it has created for itself and has in turn been modified by?
Given the crowds in the current Whitney galleries, it appears that audiences continue to respond to Hopper’s work and the nostalgia it provokes. The legendary MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. noted in his catalogue essay for Hopper’s 1933 MoMA retrospective, “Many of us feel today that there is great virtue in being an “American” painter as opposed to one whose work shows foreign influences… Americans may well be proud of Edward Hopper.”
Edward Hopper’s New York is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014) through March 5, 2023