Edward Hopper’s Life on Washington Square
-By Melinda Laing
Like many New Yorkers, Edward Hopper hunted for the perfect apartment, and when he found it, he never left. One can imagine the real estate listing (updated for today’s reader): “north-facing skylight, charming kitchenette, steps from Washington Square Park, location, location, location.”
Hopper’s modest top-floor studio at 3 Washington Square North seems to have checked off everything on his “must-haves” list. He settled into the new spot in 1913, and was joined there by the artist Josephine (Jo) Nivison Hopper upon their marriage in 1924; several years later, the couple moved across the hall to a larger apartment with coveted park-facing windows, ample sunlight, and space for their individual studios. Edward and Jo remained there until their deaths in 1967 and 1968, respectively.
When I moved to the city in 2010 to attend graduate school at New York University, I rented a small East Village walk-up with a roommate, and during my frequent strolls — typically to and from the library, I would admire the stretch of classic red-brick townhouses that included Hopper’s apartment.
As a member of the curatorial team who organized the exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York, currently on view at the Whitney Museum ofAmerican Art, I was excited to explore the artist’s relationship with his longtime neighborhood and to think about the critical role it played in his life. Naturally, Washington Square emerged as a key topic in our research, and for the show, we designed a central gallery that presents, for the first time together, Hopper’s prints, drawings, watercolors, and paintings of the subject.
While the Hoppers retreated in the summers to the New England coast, they returned each fall to New York, eager to get back to their Greenwich Village studio-residence and to re-establish their city routines. For Edward, New York — and in particular, Washington Square and its surrounding neighborhoods — was a constant source of inspiration. Many of the works in Edward Hopper’s New York reveal the artist’s keen interest in the cityscape visible from his windows and his rooftop, or in views of nearby storefronts and apartment interiors, as glimpsed from the street or an elevated train. In paintings like The City (1927) and City Roofs (1932), Hopper alludes to the rapid modernization of Greenwich Village during this period, emphasizing the ever-changing nature of New York’s built environment.
While some of the sights that Hopper depicted are still around, others have been torn down (the Hoppers’ local movie house and the 7th Avenue row houses in Early Sunday Morning, 1930, for instance). Rather than capturing a specific location, Hopper often based his works on a type of place — such as the old-time corner drug stores or the automat-cafeterias once common in Greenwich Village. Visitors can now access an interactive Google map at whitney.org/hoppermap that shows several of the places that the artist painted as they look today.
When Hopper arrived at Washington Square, the neighborhood was already known for its thriving artist community. Constructed in the 1830s, Hopper’s building belonged to a set of mostly Greek Revival homes that were converted into studios in 1884 and nicknamed “The Row.” With an influx of artists, writers, and other creatives taking advantage of its affordable housing, the area continued to serve as the city’s bohemian center into the second half of the century. However, by the 1930s and 40s, Edward and Jo witnessed a constant cycle of demolition and construction as nineteenth-century buildings like their own were torn down to make way for new structures. A fascinating group of letters, notebooks, and news clippings from this time reveal the Hoppers’ advocacy for the preservation of their neighborhood in the face of encroaching urban development, specifically from New York University’s expansion around Washington Square Park. Many of these materials, which are on view in the exhibition, relate to the Hoppers’ impassioned–and–ultimately–successful fight to prevent NYU from evicting them and their neighbors. Their lobbying efforts included an exchange with an unsympathetic Robert Moses and drafts written by Jo for later correspondence to mayor Fiorello La Guardia that list notable artists, past and present, who lived in their building.
Several of Hopper’s late paintings, made in the 1940s and 50s, indirectly reference his Washington Square studio and home. In the background of paintings like Morning in a City (1944), Morning Sun (1952), and Office in a Small City (1953), Hopper depicted window views overlooking row houses that were likely modeled on his own block or the surrounding buildings.
When walking through Edward Hopper’s New York, I often think about the artist’s use of this personal architectural motif, and find myself reflecting on the slices of New York that have been part of my life here, and that continue to resonate with me.
Melinda Lang is a senior curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was part of a team that put together the Whitney’s exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York, on through March 5. For advanced tickets and information on free and discounted ticket options, visit Whitney.org.
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