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The Temptation of Edward Hopper: Edward Hopper as Puritan at Craig F. Starr Gallery by Donald Kuspit

Edward Hopper, Group of Houses, 1923 or 1924 Watercolor, 14 x 20 inches, courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York, NY.

By DONALD KUSPIT December 6, 2023

Featuring Hopper’s Two Puritans, 1945—two New England houses, side by side, regarded as a “symbolic portrait” of Hopper and his wife Jo--the exhibition at Craig F. Starr Gallery argues that Hopper was a “man bred in Puritanism,” as Guy Pene du Bois wrote in 1931, a view Hopper accepted in an appreciative letter to Pene du Bois.  As though to assert his Puritanism, Hopper’s witty Self-Portrait (La Reve de Josie), 1936—he’s casually seated, with a feather cockily in his hat and his cloak drooping off his shoulders--is a clever, subliminally mocking reprise of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ magnificent sculpture The Puritan, 1936, grandly cloaked and majestically upright, confronting the spectator, indeed bearing down on him with steady legs and a firm gaze.  More important and serious evidence for Hopper’s Puritanism was his fascinated identification with the hero of George Santayana’s 1936 novel The Last Puritan, as the scholar Louis Shadwick argues in the brilliant essay that accompanies the exhibition.  He notes that “the novel opens with a description of a pair of Boston houses…evidently twins,” one a “Prince Charming,” the other an “aged Cinderella.”  Shadwick’s argument is well-taken, but it evades the import of Two Puritans.  As the scholar Jacques Barzun writes, symbolism is “suggestive,” and what is suggested by Hopper’s Two Puritans is sexual intercourse.  If, as Freud wrote, a house is a symbol of the body and a tree of the erect penis, then the line of three very upright, sturdy trees in front of the two houses that symbolize Hopper’s and Jo’s bodies—there’s another “promising” phallic tree waiting on the left—suggests that Hopper and his wife Jo had a vigorous sex life.  There are no leaves on the trees, suggesting there’s no shame in sexual intercourse. 

Edward Hopper, Houses on a Hill, 1926 or 1928 Watercolor, 16 x 21 3/4 inches. Courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York, NY.

The bright red lintel above the entrance to the smaller house—Jo’s body—symbolizes her aroused clitoris.  A Woman in the Sun, 1961—Jo naked and upright—and Morning Sun, 1952—Jo naked and seated on a bed—is a desirable woman.  Office at Night, 1940 is implicitly sexual, as the standing woman, her buttocks bulging out of her tight dress, staring at the man seated at the desk, makes clear.  Woman is an object of desire in the morning and has her own intense desire at night.  The naked woman in Eleven A. M., 1926 and in Morning in a City, 1944 is implicitly Jo, and so is the Reclining Nude, 1924.  Josephine Nivison Hopper was not only Edward Hopper’s wife and muse, but her body was the object of his desire, not to say his lust.  Helen Appleton Read thought that Hopper “suspected his feeling,” “the true sign of the Puritan,” but there is nothing Puritan about Hopper’s “male gaze,” but rather appreciative feeling for the female body and the pleasure it promises.  Sexuality is lurking in the relationship of the male and female Nighthawks, 1942—the woman wears a luridly red dress--as well as in their office—professional--relationship.  Night on the El Train, 1918 shows a man and a woman intimately together in an empty train.  

Edward Hopper, Kelly Jenness House, 1932 Watercolor, 20 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York, NY.

Lloyd Goodrich’s statement that Hopper “more than any other (painter) was getting more of the quality of America into his canvases” is a half-truth, considering the fact that Hopper was seriously interested in, not to say influenced by, Freud, and his insistence on the fundamental importance of the unconscious and sexuality in life.  In 1939 Hopper wrote that “So much of every art is an expression of the subconscious that it seems to me most of all the important qualities are put there unconsciously, and little of importance by the conscious intellect.”  From that perspective, America is of little importance compared to sexuality in Hopper’s paintings.  They have a dream-like hypnotic quality, America the manifest content, sexuality the not always latent content.  What is “put” in Hopper’s paintings of Jo—and other young women, including the fully dressed attractive blonde usherette in New York Movie, 1939 (note the streak of red—displaced lipstick?--at the hip on the blue pants of her left leg)--by Hopper’s unconscious is sexual desire.  I suggest that the open passage to her right symbolizes her vagina, the red curtains that drape it symbolize her labia—the lips at its entrance.  Dare one say that Hopper is not a realist but a surrealist manque, at least when it comes to women?  After all, dreams come true in movies.  The melancholy usherette is probably dreaming of true love.  Note the illuminated head of the isolated man seated in the audience.   They are made for each other. 

Edward Hopper, Two Puritans, 1945 Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York, NY.


The Henry Ford, 1923 Etching, 14 x 17 3/8 inches. Courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York, NY.

I am arguing that the other works in the exhibition are fraught with sexual meaning—erotic innuendo if you prefer.  I suggest that the sleek sailboats that Hopper paints—The Cat Boat, 1922, The Henry Ford, 1923, and Gloucester Boats at Wharf, 1923--are symbols of the slim body of an alluring young woman.  Freud once compared women to narcissistic cats (always “licking” themselves).  Noteworthy, the sailors steering The Cat Boat are men.  In Gloucester Boats at Wharf the slim young beautiful boat on its side emotionally “reads” as a reclining woman, ready to be taken out to (sexual) sea by a man.  The full sails of The Henry Ford symbolize a powerful, important man on the make—“making” the slim female ship they mount, indeed, rise above like ejaculate of a grand erection.  The “austere” Kelly Jenness House, 1932 reads as male, the ornate Houses on a Hill, 1926 or 1928 read as female.  

Edward Hopper, The Cat Boat, 1922 Etching, 13 1/2 x 16 inches. Courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York, NY.

Hopper’s vital young American women, whether physical presences or in the symbolic form of  sleek sexy boats waiting to be “sailed” or intriguing houses waiting to be “entered,” are not traditional odalisques, their passive bodies idealized into seductive beauty, nor modern monsters, like the women whose bodies Picasso surrealized into absurdity nor, with greater contempt and viciousness, the women whose bodies de Kooning shredded into waste matter.  Instead, I suggest that Hopper, in his deceptive matter of fact way, idealizes woman:  she becomes the temporal embodiment of what Goethe called the “eternal feminine that draws us on.”  That is, she becomes peculiarly transcendental, as the morning light that shines on her in many of Hopper’s paintings suggests.  Jo was not just his muse, but a symbol of the eternal feminine.  More simply, his respect for her body is a welcome relief from the degrading desecration of the female body in the works of Picasso and de Kooning, and other artists who “modernized” it.  Hopper was not a puritan, but they unconsciously were, for they burned woman’s body on the stake of their art until it became aesthetic ash.


Edward Hopper, The Henry Ford, 1923 Etching, 14 x 17 3/8 inches. Courtesy of Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York, NY.

Aux Fortification, 1923 makes Hopper’s admiration and respect for women clear.  Two of them stand on the ramparts, talking with a soldier, suggesting they are soldiers in spirit.  They are heroines protecting the state, indifferent to whatever bullets might be fired at them.  “Hopper recalls a scene in Belleville, northeast of Paris, where working class men and women socialized on the remnants of medieval ramparts.”  The work suggests Hopper’s identification with the working class, but also suggests that woman can hold her own in the war of the sexes.  Jo certainly held her own in her relationship with Hopper.  Jo was the model for the naked burlesque queen in Hopper’s Girlie Show, 1941—like Circe an audaciously triumphant woman turning men into pigs. She was inherently superior to them, being the daughter of Helios, the sun god, bringing to mind the many works in which Hopper showed the morning sun shining on Jo’s seductive body.  WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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