When you hear the name 'Edward Hopper,' what comes to mind is paintings like “Nighthawks” or “Gas,” “Lighthouse at Two Lights” or “Rooms by the Sea” — studies in isolation that are neither lonely nor depressing because they're colorful, orderly, well-lit. Hopper's many years in the magazine and advertising trade are readily apparent, even if he claimed to detest commerical work: his paintings tend to be “friendly,” inviting, even when their subjects seem lost, unhappy, on the edge.
Spend time in Hopper's hometown, however, and you may come to agree that his approach to art derives less from his early paid work in New York City than his boyhood years 20 miles up the Hudson. That was the argument, certainly, of "Edward Hopper, Prelude: The Nyack Years," a small but intriguing exhibit that recently closed at Nyack, New York's Edward Hopper house. It's a view Hopper himself would agree with, having told an interviewer in 1935, “In every artist's development the germ of the later work is always found in the earlier. What he once was, he always is."
It's easy to see why Nyack can claim to have “made” Hopper (1882 – 1967), and why the museum suggests visitors take a walking tour of his old neighborhood. In Hopper's youth the village was an industrial and commercial center: it was well-known for yacht-building and shoe-manufacturing, and Hopper's father owned a dry-goods store on South Broadway, a few blocks downstream of the Hopper House. By the 1960s, though, it had faded — the Tappan Zee bridge, which opened just south of town in 1955, has been both blessing and curse — but in recent decades Nyack has re-invented itself as an arts-and-antiques center. Many of the old Victorian homes have been restored: walk down First Avenue, on the block next to the Hudson, and you may want to move in.
A number of these homes were painted by Hopper (artistically, that is), and the Hopper House has published an indispensible walking-tour brochure taking you past them. “Seven A.M.” is a now-unoccupied storefront that looked rather better in Hopper's time; the turreted house with the circular porch in “The Lee Shore,” on LaVeta Place, is barely visible today due to huge trees. Meander down to the water on Ackerman Place, look north, and you'll see Hook Mountain... which even today looks very like the watercolor in the Hopper House display.
One house you won't get a good look at is “Pretty Penny,” the Broadway Victorian long owned by "first lady of American theatre" Helen Hayes (better known in her later years as mother of “Hawaii Five-O” actor James MacArthur). The 1939 painting, now at Smith College, is apparently Hopper's only commissioned work, and he agreed to it only under pressure from his wife/manager and his dealer (he was paid $2,500, a good fee at the time). Hayes later remarked, “I just shriveled under the heat of [Hopper's] disapproval... I was utterly unnerved by this man.” The home — owned for a few years by talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell — is now surrounded by an imposing brick wall.
Although the now-closed show was a good introduction to Hopper, the streets of Nyack — if the weather's good, at least — are almost as good. To see his “best of,” go to the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan; but if you're interested in his character, his desire to be more than just an "illustrator," start here in Nyack.