This connection is easy to make: Hopper’s style is unmistakably cinematic in its use of light, which seems to have influenced poster illustrators after Psycho,including the designer of: Days of Heaven (different take on the same Victorian house), and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking (deserted Western street corner, very Hopperesque).
It’s the clear (almost cinematic) light of Hopper’s paintings, the long shadows, and oftener-than-not, intriguing solitary figure, that must appeal to certain directors. So why should it be surprising that Hopper was, in turn, a real fan of movie theaters too?
The earliest Hopper painting to feature one seems to be Solitary Figure in a Theater, (1903, Whitney Museum of American Art), near and dear to me, as the former manager of a theater that was often empty. Intermission (1963, SFMOMA) was conceived while Hopper watched a movie. Jo Hopper, his wife, subsequently arranged for him to work on the painting in an empty theater, what particular theater, nobody knows. An original sketch includes “half another person” (Hopper’s own words), but in the end, the moviegoer is alone.
First Row Orchestra (1951, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC) involves five, possibly six, people — a veritable crowd for Hopper! — in the first two rows of an elegant live house. Curtain down (blue velvet), either intermission or pre-performance; the primary figure, is a fur-coated woman reading her program.
Let’s step outside for a glance at a movie marquee; in fact, see if you can find that marquee in The Circle Theatre (1936, private collection). As far as I know, this is the only theater exterior Hopper ever painted...
The Sheridan Theatre (1939) gives the solitary figure a sweeping lobby to wait in. A review of a show featuring this painting, from The New York Times, quotes Hopper, “When I don’t feel in the mood for painting I go to the movies for a week or more. I go on a regular movie binge...” The Sheridan may have been his favorite theater, in NYC’s West Village, not far from Washington Square where he and his wife, Josephine (Jo) Nivison, unfolded their lives together.
I featured New York Movie (1939, MOMA), in a recent post. The theater in this painting has been identified variously as: the Strand, the Globe, or the Republican; but it’s probably the Palace on West 47th St. Smoking a cigarette in the aisle is the ever-present Jo Nivison Hopper. Jo was a painter in her own right who (like Lee Krasner of Jackson Pollack fame) didn’t entirely get her due. Read all about it here, if you dare.
And precisely because she didn’t get her due, I’ll close with Jo: in the lobby of the Sheridan Theatre, smoking a cigarette in an unnamed movie palace (probably an amalgam of several theaters), and sitting all by herself, her feet crossed discretely, in Intermission. In First Row Orchestra, she extends a curved white leg, and seems to be flirting with the man who accompanies her. I hope she was having a good time.
1. Not to be missed is the movie, Shirley: Visions of Reality, in a class by itself. It uses 13 Hopper paintings to tell a story. At least one of them is included in the post you just read. Check it out.
2. Jo was Hopper’s everything: wife, model, procurer of empty movie houses to paint in, secretary, librarian, you name it. If you try to find her works on the Net, you’ll be surprised at how many trails end up at Edward Hopper. In that, she is a little like Christopher Milne, the son of A.A. Milne, the model for “Christopher Robin,” who fought all his life to be himself and not a fictional character. But Jo had it harder; she was a wife, not a son. She was a muse, and that’s a very difficult role to play and remain human.