Earlier this summer, I looked for Edward Hopper's Morning Sun at its home in the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. In the painting, a woman sits on a bed with her knees up, gazing out a window. She's bare, but for a short pink slip. The iconic Hopper is a must-see, but on the day I visited, it was on loan to an exhibition in Madrid.
I finally caught up with Morning Sun in Paris, where it is on display as part of a Hopper show at the Grand Palais. When I first walked in, the gallery was empty, but not for long. The room quickly filled — as has the whole exhibition — since it opened in October.
Curator Didier Ottinger says the crowds for the Hopper show rival the crowds for Picasso or Monet exhibits — and that surprised him. He never expected his exhibition of the American realist's work to become such a phenomenon. Though Hopper is a favorite in the U.S., French museums don't own his work, so the French don't know the painter very well. Now that they've been introduced, they like him quite a bit — they like his colors, his people and his light.
Hopper shows men and women, bathed in light from open windows, or under fluorescent light — those figures drinking coffee from hell in a nighttime diner. They all seem isolated and lonely. The fact that the images are based on the lives of ordinary people is very American, Ottinger says, but the French still see themselves in these paintings. "Each of his works is a kind of screen where everybody ... is able to project his own feelings, his own emotions," Ottinger says.
Hopper never painted narratives; it's up to us to impose our own stories on his images. But, says Ottinger, there are autobiographical elements in the paintings. In Hopper's 1932 painting Room in New York, a man and a woman sit together but alone. The man is engrossed in his newspaper; the woman seems lost in thought, one finger placed on the key of a piano. They're so removed from one another.
"And this is precisely the time when his wife, Josephine, was starting to write her own diary where she expressed her frustration because he was becoming a famous painter," Ottinger says.
Edward and Josephine Hopper met as young students in art school in New York and married in 1924. "And very, very fast he became one of the key figures in realism of this period, and she was left behind," Ottinger says.
At her insistence, she became his only model. That way, Jo felt that she played a part in the creation of his paintings, and Hopper encouraged this interpretation. Jo had wanted to be an actress, but that never worked out, Ottinger explains, so her husband "gave her this kind of chance to be his only actress, and every single painting is a kind of small play."
So that's Jo in the pink slip, sitting by the open window in Morning Sun. "More than solitude, more than melancholy, this painting is expressing a kind of awakeness," Ottinger says. The woman staring out that window is aware of what the day and her life are really about.
"She's awake ... ," Ottinger says, snapping his fingers. "There is something higher, there is something bigger, there is something more cosmic than this sad and ordinary life which is expressed by this gloomy room. ... I think this is precisely what is always interesting — something which can be depressing, but at the same time, there is always hope."
Edward Hopper, seen in a new light in Paris. (A friend says Hopper — himself a Francophile — would be thrilled to find his works on view so near the Louvre.) Ottinger's exposition of this major 20th-century American painter remains at the Grand Palais until the end of January.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Next, we're going to go from the Buckeye State to Paris on a quest to see a realist painter in a new light. First, a quick take on what's called the Spring Break for Art Lovers. Art Basel Miami Beach wrapped up its 11th year yesterday. The four-day contemporary art exhibition featured more than 250 galleries from about 30 countries. And the scope of the art was broad, from works by the likes of Miro and Picasso, to what one Florida writer described as, a bejeweled bag of ruffles.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The toast of Paris these days, in addition to champagne and a good Burgundy, is an American realist who painted only some 100 canvases, He's a great favorite in this country, but is barely known in France.
NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg encountered Edward Hopper in Paris, and almost Ohio.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Well, at the Columbus Museum of Art last summer, I looked for "Morning Sun" - woman with her knees up, bare but for a short pink slip, sitting on a bed, looking out the window - an iconic Hopper, a must-see.
MELISSA WOLF: It's on loan right now to an exhibition.
STAMBERG: Columbus curator Melissa Wolf.
Wait. I came all this way...
STAMBERG: ...from Washington, D.C. to Columbus, Ohio to see one of the worlds most famous paintings by Edward Hopper. And it's not here?
No, it travels a lot. It's a very well-requested painting.
"Morning Sun" was in Madrid then Paris - me, too - in October. So at the big Hopper show at the Grand Palais, I tried again.
Oh, "Morning Sun." There's "Morning Sun." But, you know, it's been reproduced so often and so effectively, that seeing the original feels, well, repetitive. There it is and no one is standing in front of it.
That gallery was empty but not for long. The room quickly filled up with art lovers, as has the whole exhibition, since it opened in October.
DIDIER OTTINGER: There are now more visitors for this Hopper show than for the former Picasso or even Monet show.
STAMBERG: Curator Didier Ottinger is amazed. He never expected the Hopper show to be the phenomenon it's become. Seems that no museum in France owns his works, so the French don't know Hopper very well. And they like him.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A little Hopper is a very best. Everything is beauty - colors, la lumier.
STAMBERG: The light.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oui.
STAMBERG: They like his colors, his people. Hopper shows men and women bathed in light from open windows, or under fluorescent lighting - those figures drinking coffee from hell in a night-time diner.
OTTINGER: I don't think the American could feel not good.
STAMBERG: Look at the people.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, every people is alone, solitude.
STAMBERG: They all seem more than isolated. Lonely. Curator Ottinger says the French who seem so sophisticated, so knowing and polished, see themselves in these very American paintings.
OTTINGER: Each of his works is a kind of screen where everybody, everybody is able to project his own feelings, his own emotions.
STAMBERG: What is American in Hopper's paintings?
OTTINGER: Huh, what is American? To express and to make some images based on what is the ordinary life of the people.
STAMBERG: Hopper never painted narratives. It's up to us to impose our own stories on his images. But, says Ottinger, there are autobiographical elements in the paintings. "Room in New York" for instance, made in 1932.
OTTINGER: You see these two people who have no exchange, no communication between them. He is reading a newspaper. She's playing a note.
STAMBERG: She's not even playing. She's got one finger on one key of a standup piano. And, you know, she's just rested that finger but she's thinking something completely different. And they're so removed from one another.
OTTINGER: Yes. And this is precisely the time when his wife, Josephine, start to write her own diary where, she expressed her frustration because Hopper was becoming a famous painter.
STAMBERG: They'd started out at young students, met in art school in New York, married in 1924.
OTTINGER: And very, very fast he became one of the key figures in realism of this period. And she was...
STAMBERG: And she got left behind?
OTTINGER: ...left behind.
STAMBERG: At her insistence, Jo became his only model. Jo felt, says Ottinger, that she played a part in the creation of his paintings. And cannily, Hopper encouraged this interpretation. Jo had wanted to be an actress. That never worked out.
OTTINGER: So he gave her this kind of chance to be his only actress. And every single painting is a kind of small play, where she is the actress.
STAMBERG: So that's Jo in the pink slip by the open window in "Morning Sun," the picture I finally get to see in the Paris show.
But if you didn't know that, about their marriage or their relationship, then what is there in this painting that's important.
OTTINGER: Yeah. So I think more than solitude, more than melancholy, this painting is expressing a kind of awake-ness.
STAMBERG: Didier Ottinger sees "Morning Sun" as mystical, a transcendence. The woman staring out that window is aware of what the day and her life is really about.
OTTINGER: She's awake. She's attracted by, suddenly, oh yes, there is something higher, there is something bigger, there is something more cosmic than this sad and ordinary life, which is expressed by this gloomy room.
STAMBERG: So you see, you see a kind of hope, then, in this picture.
OTTINGER: Yes, hope. Of course. Everywhere. I think this is precisely what is always interesting in Hopper's paintings. There is something which could be depressing. But, at the same time, there is always hope.
STAMBERG: Edward Hopper, seen in a new light in Paris. A friend says Hopper, himself a Francophile, would be thrilled to find his works on view so near the Louvre. Curator Didier Ottinger's exposition of this major 20th century American painter remains at the Grand Palais until the end of January.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: And you can see art by Edward Hopper at npr.org.
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This MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
GREENE: And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.