• The Waning Years of Edward Hopper

    Richard Lacayo on How Aging Impacts an Artist’s Output and Oeuvre

    In September 1948, Edward Hopper put the final touches on the painting he would call Seven A.M. As with most of his great pictures—and this is one of them—its quiet power is both plain and a bit mysterious. It shows us a very ordinary scene, a portion of a white storefront, with a partial view of its interior through its wide plate glass windows. It’s not clear what kind of business this is. A pharmacy? A barbershop? Even Hopper wasn’t sure.

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    But whatever it is, he makes it appear a semi-rural place, set along a dirt road and beside a patch of woods with shadowed undergrowth. Morning sunlight brushes against the upper foliage and spreads across the wooden storefront, where it picks out three slender classical columns that frame the plate glass, a trace memory of the ancient world passed down to a small-town façade. Through the window the same light bends along one white interior wall, showing us a stand of empty shelves and the top filigree of an ornate steel cash register.

    What is this painting about? Sunlight and silence, of course. Those are two of Hopper’s constants. But a further answer is just to the right of the picture’s dead center, where a brown wall clock appears almost to float against the stark white wall where it hangs. Its presence is magnified by the long shadow it casts under the raking morning light. Hopper did nothing by accident, and this clock is nearly central for a reason. It’s the keynote of the picture, which, among the other things it’s about, is about nothing less than the power of time. Hopper had turned sixty-six in July and had been feeling his age for years. Because time was no longer on his side, it was that much more on his mind.

    A new beginning was something the aging Hopper might well have wished for.

    And as it turns out, this picture is not just a meditation on time but a bit of time recaptured, a painted memory, because the storefront it shows us is based on an actual shop Hopper had first seen in his youth. It was, and still is, just up the road from his childhood home in Nyack, New York, a Hudson River town of about four thousand in the years he grew up there.

    We know from the journals of his wife, Josephine, that his last addition to this canvas was to delicately brush in the clock’s slim hands. He set them to the hour that gives the painting its name, a hushed moment before the shop will open for business. Did Hopper produce this image of an eternal morning as a kind of wish fulfillment, a way to return to the seven A.M. of his own life, to a world at first light, and with it the new beginning promised by each new day? Very possibly, because a new beginning was something the aging Hopper might well have wished for.

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    Make no mistake, Hopper’s last years were gratifying in almost every way an artist could ask for. They were two decades of gold medals, blue ribbons, and academy memberships. The virtuoso of American solitude would represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, appear on the cover of Time, and feature in over two hundred gallery and museum shows, including two full retrospectives. And though he stood before his easel less frequently, he would see quick sales of whatever new paintings he could bring himself to produce. More than that, in his old age Hopper would make some of the most profound and moving art of his career, pictures like Seven A.M.

    More often than in his work as a younger man, a number of these pictures were in some way autobiographical, though almost never directly. Just like Matisse, Hopper often said that the artist always put himself into his own canvases, that his paintings, no matter what they were pictures of—a lighthouse, an empty road, a woman alone over a cup of coffee—were always a projection of his own interior state. But in some of his late work he seems to make coded references to himself that are more specific than a glimpse into some amorphous mood.

    On a visit to Hopper’s studio in 1963, Brian O’Doherty, an arts journalist who was also a friend, had a chance to examine Sun in an Empty Room, a then-unfinished painting that would be one of the artist’s last. Looking over that scene of two fleeting sunbeams climbing a blank wall—vertical paths of light that surely represent the aging artist and his wife, even as they bring to mind headstones—O’Doherty asked the old man what he was after in that picture. Hopper shot back. “I’m after ME!”

    That idea of implied self-portrait might even help to explain the woman we see looking out a bay window in Cape Cod Morning. It’s a painting he made in the autumn of 1950, a few months after turning sixty-eight. We find this searching woman inside one of Hopper’s typical houses, both sunlit and isolated, gazing across a sea of tall grasses and a wall of trees that recede into darkness.

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    Though the white exterior clapboard of her house is scoured by a brilliant Cape light, the woman inside is set in a darker compartment, her bay window engulfed in purple shadow and flanked by tall black shutters. Yet while she’s as confined as one of the screaming popes that Francis Bacon would start painting a few years later, she’s much less anguished and overwhelmed—more questing. Some years before the first astronauts, she’s piloting her little capsule like a space explorer.

    Because time was no longer on his side, it was that much more on his mind.

    So is she a stand-in for Hopper, who was a notably shuttered soul, a man who looked out on the world from the chamber of his own solitude? Interviewed with her husband for Time magazine, Jo suggested that “it’s a woman looking out to see if the weather’s good enough to hang out her wash.” Her husband practically winced. “You’re making it Norman Rockwell.

    From my point of view she’s just looking out the window, just looking out the window.” More than that the laconic Hopper would never tell—he always refused to offer much explanation for his paintings. But on another occasion, he did allow a wonderfully Hopper-esque take on this one, a few parsimonious words that hint she might indeed be a surrogate. Cape Cod Morning, he said, “comes nearer to what I feel than some of my other paintings.” Because he was Hopper, he still hedged. “I don’t believe it’s important to know exactly what that is.”

    In a few of his late canvases Hopper tips his hand even more, with images that hint at particular dilemmas in his life. In this way Seven A.M. is plainly the work of a man who hears that insistent wall clock ticking inside his own head. And the twinned bars of light in Sun in an Empty Room acknowledge the inevitable slow fade of himself and his wife, Jo. As for the costumed couple in his last painting, Two Comedians, holding hands as they take a bow before heading offstage, it’s plain they are the Hoppers bidding farewell to the world. By the time he made that picture seventeen years had passed since he completed Seven A.M., and the hands on that clock had come back around to evening.

    Yet even as Hopper was continuing to produce some acute and deeply felt paintings, he was making fewer of them. It was the same problem of deceleration the aging Monet once faced. As early as his fifties, when he first started suffering from the chronic fatigue that was misdiagnosed for years as “low thyroid,” Hopper’s output had begun to sputter. By his sixties it had slowed to a crawl. Where once he might complete four or five oils in a single year, Seven A.M. was the only canvas he finished in 1948. In the year that followed there would be four again, but in the 1950s and ’60s his output in most years dropped to two, or one, and in some years none.

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    Some of this was due to what can only be called painter’s block, the mysterious condition composed of equal parts exhaustion, ennui, and indecision. Even in his forties Hopper was prone to grumble about how hard it was to find scenes that struck him as worth setting down, but by his mid-sixties inaction had become a chronic condition, if not a kind of philosophical position—a resistance to the idea that life had anything new to offer.

    Amid the endless variety of Manhattan, where he had lived and prowled since 1908, he found less and less that moved him. As for Cape Cod, where he and Jo had spent every summer since 1930, it was still a source of pleasure but not much inspiration. Months would go by there without a single watercolor to show for it, much less an oil.

    This kind of inactivity was sometimes a byproduct of depression, sometimes a cause of it. The long listless stretches made Hopper miserable, then the misery made him even more unproductive. The American realist painter Charles Burchfield, an old friend, once described Hopper as a man who “suffers agony during his dormant periods, so important in him is his need to paint.” But as he inched toward seventy, those dormant periods were becoming longer and more frequent.

    However it is that dreams and memory have blended here, it was to arrive at what may be a bleak premonition.

    Hopper’s health was also beginning to falter. His periodic inertia was complicated by the persistent fatigue he had suffered for years. Back in 1938 it had led one of his doctors, who rejected the low thyroid diagnosis, to prescribe what was then the new wonder drug Benzedrine—later known to hipsters as “bennies.” It’s odd to think of Hopper, the laconic Republican in a tweed suit, as an early adopter of the speedball elixir of Beat poets and jazz musicians, but he found it helpful and continued using it into his sixties.

    One month after he completed Seven A.M., while still on the Cape, Hopper also suffered a bout of cardiac pain that landed him in the hospital. A few months later, back in New York, he underwent prostate surgery for the second time. Ten months after that, in February 1950, he was hospitalized again. This time the problem was diverticulitis, serious enough to keep him from the opening of his new retrospective at the Whitney, his first since a survey at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933 that had confirmed his rise into the front rank of American artists. Even before that year, the prospect of mortality started to make its way into Hopper’s work.

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    Though Hopper would never put it this way, it’s easy to think of Seven A.M., a picture of time asserting its power in a wooded setting, as his version of Et in Arcadia ego, Poussin’s grim masterpiece from around 1638. In Poussin’s canvas three idealized shepherds and a very classical maiden are gathered in an open landscape before a tomb carved with death’s lethal boast—“Even in Paradise, there am I.” Just as that picture also seems to prefigure Matisse’s late cut-out Sorrow of the King, Poussin’s dry-eyed acknowledgement of death’s universal dominion feels like a spiritual ancestor of Hopper’s imperturbable little clock.

    Even more to the point was a small painting that Hopper worked on the next year. The picture we now call Stairway was very uncharacteristic for him, and not just because it was on wood panel instead of canvas. It gives us the view from midway down a staircase in a narrow front hallway. At the bottom is a doorway that opens onto a shadowy landscape ending in dark hills silhouetted against a blue sky. Hopper made this painting during a difficult time of depression, illness, and surgeries.

    Once again it’s a memory picture—the staircase and doorway are the ones still to be found at his boyhood home in Nyack. It’s also sets down an imagined moment of supernatural power, because Hopper told Jo it was inspired by “a repeated dream of levitation, sailing downstairs & out thru door.” Yet, however it is that dreams and memory have blended here, it was to arrive at what may be a bleak premonition, a downward passage into twilight.


    Excerpted from Last Light: How Six Great Artists Made Old Age a Time of Triumph by Richard Lacayo. Copyright © 2022. Available from Simon & Schuster.

    Richard Lacayo
    Richard Lacayo
    Richard Lacayo was a longtime writer and editor at Time, and from 2003 to 2016 the magazine’s art and architecture critic. He has also contributed articles on those subjects to People, Foreign Policy, and Graydon Carter’s new online publication Air Mail. He is the coauthor, with George Russell, of Eyewitness: 150 Years of Photojournalism. In 2013, he delivered one of the annual Clarice Smith Lectures at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, on artists in old age.

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