Edward Hopper and New York Theater

For Edward Hopper, theater was a passionate pastime, an inspiration, and also, from first to last, a subject of his paintings — enough of them to fill a gallery and then some in “Edward Hopper’s New York,” a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, opening October 19th and running through March 5, 2023.

“Intermission,” 1963.

“Solitary Figure in a Theater,” c. 1902–04. “Group of Musicians in an Orchestra Pit,” 1904-1906. “A Theater Entrance,” 1906-1910

As the exhibition makes clear, Hopper’s New York City was not the city with which visitors are most familiar — not the vertical city of skyscrapers and landmarks and crowds, but a horizontal city, of “out-of-the-way corners,” sparsely populated coffee shops, offices, apartments…theaters. If his paintings of theater interiors are just a small number of the 200 art works showcased in the new exhibition, the theater arguably is ever-present in Hopper’s art, a major influence. His best-known paintings are dramatically lit — like a stage set.

Born in Nyack, New York, about thirty miles north of New York City, Edward Hopper (1882-1967) visited the city frequently to see theater and attend art school before he finally moved here in 1908. From 1913 until his death in 1967, he lived and worked in an apartment around Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

“At the Theater,” c. 1916–22

In 1924, he married Josephine Nivison, a fellow artist who had been an actress with the theater troupe the Washington Square Players. Jo collaborated with her husband in his paintings, posing for them and, the exhibition implies, helping him to see them as a kind of theater.

In 1927, he painted “Two on the Aisle,” which the exhibition labels his first major painting of a theater interior — focused (as most of them would be) not on the actors on the stage, but on the spectators in the auditorium:

“Two on the Aisle,” 1927

Here is “New York Movie, 1939.” Jo Hopper posed for both the usher at the right and the member of the audience on the left. Hopper did studies of four movie theaters in the city to create this composite rendering.

The Hoppers frequented the Sheridan Theater, a short walk from their home – which he painted in 1937

Hopper also frequented Broadway. We know this because he and his wife collected ticket stubs of the shows they saw, writing the titles on the back. They preferred sitting in the balcony, or even the second balcony — a perspective which the Whitney curators argue was in line with (and perhaps influenced) the perspective in many of his paintings.

Looking at the tickets up close, I notice that he did splurge on orchestra seats to see John Gielgud in “Hamlet” in Broadway’s Empire Theater in 1936, for which he paid $3.30. But most of the time he spent $1.10. The exhibition includes a slide show of production stills sampling some of the many plays he saw

These include the original 1928 production of The Front Page, the 1926 revival of Pygmalion, and several productions of “The Master Builder”; evidently Ibsen was one of his favorite playwrights, judging by his sketches in the Whitney exhibition:

One of Hopper’s most consequential theatergoing experiences, according to David Crane in his essay in the exhibition catalogue, was on Valentine’s Day, 1929 when he and his wife saw the production of Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene” — because of the set design by Jo Mielziner. The year after he saw that production, Hopper created perhaps his most famous painting, “Early Sunday Morning”

“Street Scene,” 1929, set design by Jo Mielziner (a scene from the play above; his drawing of his design below)
“Early Sunday Morning,” by Edward Hopper, 1930

As the exhibition curator Kim Canaty notes: “A certain emptiness permeates—the darkened shop windows below; the shade-drawn apartments above—and the flat, vacant quality has encouraged
compelling comparisons with stage sets and theater design.”

Crane tells us that Hopper saw nine productions by Mielziner, “more than twice as many as those of any other individual designer.” His affinity with the scenic designer is “evident in Hopper’s dramatic lighting, oblique narratives, and stringent attention to only the most essential compositional elements….light has long been identified as the key link between the artist’s work and the theater.” Or as Hopper himself expressed it in 1964: “Do you notice how artificial trees look at night? Trees look like theater at night.”

The very last painting he created, in 1966, depicted two performers on a stage, “Two Comedians,” although they hardly look like they’re cracking jokes. They look like characters in an Edward Hopper painting.

“Two Comedians,” 1966

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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