“well, i use the ground of the already prepared canvas. i can’t tell what this ground is exactly.”

24/06/2011 § Leave a comment

robert rauschenberg, white painting (three panel) (1951)


interview with edward hopper, conducted by john morse, june 17, 1959

john morse:  this is an interview with the american painter and etcher edward hopper conducted by john d. morse for the archives of american art.  it is being recorded in the board room of the whitney museum on june 17, 1959.  mr. hopper, in 1933 you wrote a very interesting statement called “notes on painting” for the catalogue of your exhibition at the museum of modern art.  i wonder if first of all you would mind reading that for us and then perhaps commenting on it?

edward hopper:  it goes thus:  my aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature.  if this end is unattainable, so, it can be said, is perfection in any other ideal of painting or in any other of man’s activities.  the trend in some of the contemporary movements in art, but by no means all, seems to deny this ideal and to me appears to lead to a purely decorative conception of painting.  one must perhaps qualify this statement and say that seemingly opposite tendencies each contain some modicum of the other.

i have tried to present my sensations in what is the most congenial and impressive form possible to me.  the technical obstacles of painting perhaps dictate this form.  it derives also from the limitations of personality, and such may be the simplifications that i have attempted.  i find in working always the disturbing intrusion of elements not a part of my most interested vision, and the inevitable obliteration and replacement of this vision by the work itself as it proceeds.  the struggle to prevent this decay is, i think, the common lot of all painters to whom the invention of arbitrary forms has lesser interest.  i believe that the great painters with their intellect as master have attempted to force this unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions.  i find any digression from this large aim leads me to boredom.  the question of the value of nationality in art is perhaps unsolvable.  in general it can be said that a nation’s art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people.  french art seems to prove this.  the romans were not an aesthetically sensitive people, nor did greece’s intellectual domination over them destroy their racial character, but who is to say that they might not have produced a more original and vital art without this domination.  one might draw a not too far-fetched parallel between france and our land.  the domination of france in the plastic arts has been almost complete for the last thirty years or more in this country.  if an apprenticeship to a master has been necessary, i think we have served it.  any further relation of such a character can only mean humiliation to us.  after all, we are not french and never can be, and any attempt to be so is to deny our inheritance and to try to impose upon ourselves a character that can be nothing but a veneer upon the surface.  in its most limited sense, modern, art would seem to concern itself only with the technical innovations of the period.  in its larger, and to me irrevocable, sense, it is the art of all time of definite personalities that remain forever modern by the fundamental truth that is in them.  it makes moliere at his greatest as new as ibsen or giotto as modern as cezanne.  just what technical discoveries can do to assist interpretative power is not clear.  it is true that the impressionists perhaps gave a more faithful representation of nature through their discoveries in out-of-door painting.  but that they increased their statute as artists by so doing is controversial.  it might here be noted that thomas eakins in the nineteenth century used the methods of the seventeenth, and is one of the few painters of the last generation to be accepted by contemporary thought in this country.  if the technical innovations of the impressionists led merely to a more accurate representation of nature, it was perhaps of not much value in enlarging their powers of expression.  there may come, or perhaps has come, a time when no further progress in truthful representation is possible.  there are those who say that such a point has been reached, an attempt to substitute a more and more simplified and decorative calligraphy.  this direction is sterile and without hope to those who wish to give painting a richer and more human meaning and a wider scope.  no one can correctly forecast the direction that painting will take in the next few years, but to me at least there seems to be a revulsion against the invention of arbitrary and stylized design.  there will be, i think, an attempt to grasp again the surprise and accidents of nature and a more intimate and sympathetic study of its moods, together with a renewed wonder and humility on the part of such as are still capable of these basic reactions.

jm:  thank you, mr. hopper.  now that was thirty-six years ago you wrote that.  how would you change it today?

jo hopper:  twenty-six.

eh:  well, i don’t know.  well, i’d change that last paragraph.

jm:  twenty-six, of course, that’s right.  you’d change the last paragraph regarding the forecast.  well, we’ve all had to eat our words now and then on making prophesies.  i have, i know.

eh:  i think it will come true, but no one can tell when.

jm:  we don’t see, of course, much sign of it coming true today, a return to nature, which i, myself, predicted about fifteen years ago.  but you’re still convinced that ultimately we will.

eh:  i think so.

jm:  do you suppose, just to speculate, might it come from its impetus in america?  apparently america is now leading in a style of abstract expressionism.  i wonder if this return to nature, as we both have referred to it, might come out of here or out of france?

eh:  i don’t know.  france has always been the leader in aesthetic movements, so it may come from france.

jm:  am i right that the current movement of abstract expressionism seems to be primarily american. we, in effect, are influencing france.  do you find that to be true today?

eh:  i think it is so, but i am not quite sure.

jm:  but in any event, do you feel that any new movement will possibly come again out of france?

eh:  i think so.

jm:  mr. hopper, in your statement you referred to eakins as using a seventeenth century technique, which brings me to what to us a very important subject, and that is the materials which you have used, the ones you have found most successful and the ones that sometimes have not.

eh:  well, referring to eakins, i had rather meant his larger naturalistic method as opposed to the abstractionists.  that’s what i had meant.  i didn’t refer to all the glazing and under-painting that was done during the renaissance because i don’t think he did that.

jm:  then back to your own techniques, you mentioned that only one painting that you know of of yours has had to have some attention, nighthawks in chicago.  what was the occasion there?

eh:  well, i think it was because in order to get a greater whiteness and brilliancy, i had used zinc white in a certain area of the picture.  i think that had cracked or scaled, whereas the parts where i had used lead white did not. this is my remembrance of it.

jm:  was that due, do you think, to an inferior quality of the zinc white or to the nature of the materials?

eh:  no, i don’t think so.  i think that zinc white has a property of scaling and cracking. i know in the painting of houses on the exterior, zinc white is apt to crack and scale, whereas lead white merely powders off.

jm:  i see.

eh:  so i think that the same would be true in pictures.

jm:  and since that experience you have avoided zinc white?

eh:  yes, i use only lead white now.

jm:  well, what pigments do you use normally?

eh:  well, the maker is winsor and newton.  i can’t remember all the colors exactly. there are about twelve or thirteen of them.

jm:  and what about the support of your paintings, the canvas. do you have any preference?

eh:  yes, i get the best winsor and newton linen i can acquire.

jm:  i remember lloyd goodrich describing your studio as looking somewhat like a carpenter’s shop.  do i imply from that you make your own stretchers?

eh:  no, i do not.

jh:  god forbid!

jm:  you do not make your own stretchers.  on your winsor and newton linen, what sort of a ground do you usually have?

eh:  well, i use the ground of the already prepared canvas.  i can’t tell what this ground is exactly.

jm:  you simply trust winsor and newton?

eh:  i trust winsor and newton and i paint directly upon it.


more of the interview at american suburb x.


a young hare

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