[Update: The Hopper in Paris exhibition will take place at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. from October 8, 2020, through January 3, 2021.]
The painter was an innocent, serious young man when he arrived in the French capital. He had just graduated from the New York School of Art, admired Courbet, Manet, and Daumier, and looked down on bohemian artists. Through his parents, members of a Baptist church in the Hudson Valley, he found a room in a widow’s apartment at 48 Rue de Lille in the seventh arrondissement.
Hopper was in heaven. He visited the Salon d’Automne less than a week after he arrived. He described Cézanne’s work as “very thin,” but fell in love with Félix Vallotton and Albert Marquet, two painters who had a major influence on his art. During the same period, an American friend introduced him to paintings by Sisley, Renoir, and Pissarro.
Hopper worked outdoors just like the Impressionists. He wandered along the riverbanks, lost himself in the Latin Quarter, and sketched women wearing crinoline dresses, men in top hats, prostitutes and their pimps in the cafés around Belleville, soldiers standing to attention, caped police officers, laborers playing cards, and boatmen on the Seine.
The Geometry of Paris
Hopper “spent the [first] month working with his eyes,” writes art historian Gail Levin in her biography of the painter. In a letter to his mother, he described the geometry of Paris, the slate and zinc rooftops, the chimneys, and the greyish blue color that seemed to envelop the city on rainy days. “What Hopper saw usually became more important for him than whom he met or what he did.”
The artist reserved charcoal, ink, and watercolor for his studies and street scenes, while using oil to refine his style. He began by painting familiar subjects – the stairwell at his landlady’s apartment and the building’s interior courtyard – before turning his hand, in spring 1907, to Parisian monuments such as Notre-Dame, the Louvre, the Pont des Arts, and the floating wash-houses below the Pont Royal.
Hopper’s vision of Paris is one of a city abandoned, stripped of its identity, fragmented, and inspired by Cubism. The few characters melt into the shadows or the architecture of a metal bridge. The American painter adopted the deserted landscapes and asymmetrical framing of French photographer Eugène Atget, whose work he discovered in France.
Le Parc de Saint-Cloud (1907) and L’Ile Saint-Louis (1909) “planted the seeds for his better-known mature works,” says Elsa Smithgall, senior curator of the Phillips Collection. “There is the same dramatic contrast between light and dark, the same fascination for geometric shapes and symbolist themes.”
Paintings Vilified by U.S. Critics
The painter visited France three times between 1906 and 1910. However, his Parisian works – some forty oil paintings, around thirty watercolors, and a wealth of sketches – were denigrated by American critics. National art was the flavor of the day, and Hopper was shouted down for his foreign influences. It was in this context that he claimed, “Paris had no great or immediate impact on me.”
The painter publicly rejected his years in the City of Light and turned to totems of Americanness such as New England landscapes, big cities, and gas stations. But Hopper was proud of his French Huguenot roots and remained a Francophile for the rest of his life. He even charmed his wife by reciting a poem by Verlaine and used his last painting, Two Comedians (1966), to pay homage to Marcel Carné’s renowned movie Children of Paradise.
“I do not believe there is another city on earth so beautiful as Paris,” he wrote to his mother in 1906. “Nor another people with such an appreciation for the beautiful as the French.”