New research by a doctoral student in art history reveals that the earliest known oil paintings of Edward Hopper, the famous American loneliness artist, were copies. At least four of Hopper’s 1890s landscapes, considered proof of his precocious teenage talent, have been copied from existing images. The original source for three of the works was actually a popular magazine for hobbyist artists who reproduced color paintings with copying instructions.
Louis Shadwick made the surprising discovery during his doctoral research into the beginning of Hopper’s career at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. In a essay published in Burlington Magazine, Shadwick states that “Hopper did not produce any original oil paintings until he enrolled in the New York School of Art in the fall of 1900,” at the age of 18.
Born in 1882 in Nyack, New York, Hopper grew up in a middle-class Baptist family who encouraged his art and provided him with materials for study. He made many drawings of local life, including boats on the Hudson River, sketches of fishermen and churches. Until now, his early paintings were also considered rare depictions of Nyack, long forgotten in the attic of the family home. They were not revealed until after the artist’s death in 1967, having been acquired by a local Baptist preacher and family friend, Arthayer R. Sanborn.
In an interview with The arts journalShadwick says he was researching connections between Hopper’s formative works and his childhood home when he came across a book with “very similar” winter landscapes by American tonalist painter Bruce Crane. He “started browsing auction trawl sites on a hunch” and found a version of a crane painting that matched an early Hopper known as the Old ice pond at Nyack (circa 1897). “It was the Eureka moment,” he said.
It took another two months of digging through the picture magazines of the time to figure out how Hopper came to see Crane’s A winter sunset (1880s). The work appeared in the December 1890 issue of Art exchange, a magazine for art students. This led Shadwick to an unattributed watercolor titled lake view in the February 1891 issue which was a “dead bell” for the first oil signed Hopper, Boat in the rocky cove (1895), painted when he was only 13 years old. “The dots came together,” he says.
By Google searching for “thousands” of turn-of-the-century art images, Shadwick was able to confirm that two other Hoppers were copies: Ships (around 1898) and Church and landscape (circa 1897). The first is based on Edward Moran’s seascape A sailor, reproduced by Art exchange in August 1886. The exact source of Church and landscape is not known, but Shadwick found the same snowy scene decorating a 19th-century porcelain plaque on an auction website. He is still looking for the source of a fifth painting, Countryside road (circa 1897), that he is “99% sure that it will also be a copy”.
Although all the first copies except Church and landscape bear Hopper’s signature, Shadwick believes the artist had no intention of passing them off as originals. “I think he only signed them because they were his first oil paintings and he probably wanted to show them to his family.” Hopper never discussed or exhibited these works, suggesting that they were of little personal importance.
They were posthumously misinterpreted, Shadwick explains, after the Hopper family attic collection passed to Sanborn. In the 1980s, he invented titles for the works and made them known in connection with the artist’s youth in Nyack through exhibitions, articles and conferences.
The paintings of adolescents also fit into a myth of originality perpetuated by Hopper and his followers during his lifetime. “Decades of Hopper scholarship cultivated the idea of a totally original, uninfluenced talent that spoke of the American myth of the lonely man,” Shadwick explains. “What we need to do as art historians is take this idea of American individualism to task and bring it back to earth. This is not to try to tarnish the artist, but to tell the truth that he was learning to paint through the same methods as so many other art students during this time.
“The fact that Hopper made painted copies as a teenager offers new details to our understanding of his early years, but is certainly no reason for a reassessment of this major figure,” comments Kim Conaty, curator of an upcoming Hopper exhibit at the Whitney Museum. of American Art in New York, which holds the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work. “Making copies of another artist’s work has been an integral part of artistic development and training for centuries,” she emphasizes.
But there is potential for further discoveries among Sanborn’s extensive archives, from which 4,000 items were donated to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2017. Described at the time as the “holy grail of raw material” For Hopper’s life and work, the records “are still being processed and not accessible to outside researchers,” a Whitney spokesperson said.
When the donation becomes available for larger study, “there could be so many clues to a much richer portrait of Hopper’s youth and development,” Shadwick says. “In the future, there will be an exciting opportunity to find things that have been missed for decades.”