“The only influence I’ve ever had was myself,” the American painter Edward Hopper once said. A recent discovery by a graduate student, however, may qualify the artist’s claim to originality: at least three early landscapes by Hopper are not original works, but rather imitations of paintings reproduced in instructional magazines for amateur artists.
Louis Shadwick, a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute in London, was researching his dissertation on Hopper when he came across a painting by the American Tonalist painter Bruce Crane, “A Winter Sunset” (c. 1880s), in an 1890 issue of The Art Interchange, an illustrated monthly publication for artists that included guides to copy paintings. Crane’s work was nearly identical to — and predated — “Old Ice Pond at Nyack” (c. 1897), an oil on canvas Hopper created as a teenager.
“‘A Winter Sunset’ was the first work I identified as a copy,” Shadwick told Hyperallergic. “I was interested to discover which schools of American painting the young Hopper may have derived the romantic approach to landscape from that we see in his ‘Old Ice Pond at Nyack’, and this drew me to the little-known American Tonalist movement. The Tonalists were revered in their day and dominated the New York art world during Hopper’s youth.”
“Old Ice Pond” and other paintings by Hopper from this early period were previously thought to depict the artist’s hometown of Nyack, New York. In an article for the art historical journal Burlington Magazine where he shares his findings, Shadwick says that it is uncertain when the work was titled, or whether it was even titled by the artist himself. It’s likely, he adds, that the title was bestowed by Arthayer R. Sanborn, a friend of the artist and beneficiary of Hopper’s sister’s will, who acquired the painting.
Hopper is best known for his modernist paintings of American solitude, renderings of ghostly rooms and deserted diners populated by one or two straggling characters who stare listlessly into the abyss. These mature works have seduced audiences with their luminous surfaces and enigmatic, aloof energy.
But Hopper’s early oils, however uncharacteristic or ordinary to the average art enthusiast, have long been touted by experts and scholars as “his first original works,” Shadwick notes in his article. The “often-inflexible” categorizations of Hopper’s work, he adds, “have left little room for the myriad and often incongruous influences of his early career.”
“It becomes increasingly clear that his eventual, mature conception of realism was a composite derived from a broad spectrum of styles and movements,” Shadwick concludes. “Perhaps the apparent incongruity of these early influences can help to explain the unfixed, disparate and dislocated sense of Americanness that so haunts Hopper’s work.”
Shadwick tells Hyperallergic that he hopes to “give us a fresh understanding of how far the artist was absorbing with the American painting of his own era throughout his boyhood.”
“I believe Hopper would never have wanted these works to have been deemed as anything other than the copies they are; they were never exhibited in his lifetime as they were stored in the attic of his childhood home unseen for over sixty years. They were not titled or sold until after his death,” he said.