Quiet, luminous, spare, and evocative, the paintings of Edward Hopper are both affectionate observations of American life and formally sophisticated modernist compositions that evince his love of past masters such as Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet. Hopper’s subject was the world around him: urban interiors, including diners, hotel lobbies, offices, and theaters, most in Manhattan, where he and his wife, Jo, lived for more than forty years. He also painted the country houses, churches, and Main Streets of rural New England, where the couple summered. Above all, Hopper painted light: sun streaming through curtained windows; clapboard farmsteads in the warm glow and long shadows of late afternoon; starkly lit interiors framed by darkness. This dramatic illumination makes his pictures strongly cinematic, although they never offer a complete narrative. Rather, they hint at the artist’s deep love for the natural world and his intense curiosity about his fellow human beings.
One of his best-known works, Office at Night (1940), is also one of his most mysterious. Is this a scene from a detective novel? Are the man and woman about to fall into each other’s arms, or are they hatching a plot? Perhaps bad news has just arrived, or bankruptcy is impending. Hopper wrote a short explanation of the painting in which he notes that it “was probably first suggested by many rides on ‘L’ trains in New York City after dark and glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind. My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air, with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me.” What that meaning was, he doesn’t say; instead he goes on to discuss the painting’s three light sources and the relationship of the woman’s figure to the stark lines of the file cabinet. The text concludes, “Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.”1
Office at Night was acquired by the Walker Art Center in 1948, eight years after the establishment of its new mission as a progressive institution dedicated to contemporary art and design. Then-director Daniel Defenbacher had already implemented several programs intended to educate the public about the salutary effects of living with good design and modern art.2 In a move that now seems both shrewd and innovative, Defenbacher hatched a collaboration with a department store in downtown Minneapolis, Young-Quinlan, in which they jointly presented one hundred twenty-seven paintings by as many artists in an exhibition entitled Paintings to Know and Buy. It brought art directly to the shopping public; as a contemporary journalist noted, “If people won’t voluntarily go where modern art is, modern art must go where people are.”3 Outside the authoritative space of the museum, visitors were encouraged to trust their own taste, choosing a painting like they might choose a new dress (the invitation card promised, “You’ll like some of the pictures immensely; others you’ll tolerate; and of a few you’ll say ‘Not for me!’ ”).4 Although archival records are sketchy, they show that at least three paintings were sold to private collections, and that the young Walker Art Center made its most ambitious acquisition up to that point: ten works, for a total of $13,405, including Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Lay Figure (1938), Theodoros Stamos’ Archaic Release (1946), and Hopper’s Office at Night.
Edward Hopper, letter to Walker curator Norman A. Geske, August 25, 1948 (Walker Art Center Archives). For extensive discussions of this painting and its development, see Gail Levin, “Edward Hopper’s ‘Office at Night,’” Arts 52, no. 5 (January 1978): 134–137, and Levin’s book Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995). ↩
Defenbacher’s initiatives included the Idea House and the Everyday Art Gallery, whose histories are detailed in Andrew Blauvelt, ed., Ideas for Modern Living, exh. bro. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2000). See also Defenbacher’s outline of his vision for the new Art Center in Walker Art Center of the Minnesota Arts Council (Minneapolis, 1940; Walker Art Center Archives). ↩
John K. Sherman, “Mahomet Defenbacher Takes Art to Mountain,” Minneapolis Star, May 31, 1948 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩
Exhibition invitation card, 1948 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩