Grudge Match: Norman Rockwell vs Edward Hopper

So I was reading a discussion on art (specifically what differentiates “good” art from “bad” art)[1] and it occurred to me that while usually comparing one artist to another is typically at best comparing apples to artichokes, there was one comparison where we could at least get granny smiths compared to jonagolds. Norman Rockwell (1894 - 1978) and Edward Hopper (1882 - 1967) are near perfect compare & contrast subjects. Both lived at the same time, both staked out small life America as their prime subject matter.

Make no bones about it, Norman Rockwell was a phenomenally talented painter, and easily one of the best illustrators ever. A good eye for detail and composition, an even keener eye for anatomy, characterization, and facial expression. Look at his paintings and a whole story unfolds before you. Clever, witty, a consummate illustrator of the American scene.

Norman ROCKWELL Going and Coming 1947

Note that word: Illustrator.

As much as I enjoy Rockwell’s work, as appreciative as I am of his talent and ability, Rockwell only brought so much to the party. He expected -- nay, required his audience to already be familiar with his subjects before his put brush to canvas.

norman rockwell the-discovery

There was nothing new he had to offer, nothing original besides his personal style which, while good (arguably the best in his field) was not demonstratively different from literally scores of other artists working for the same markets.

norman rockwell cover_9260626

Yes, there is something unique to Rockwell’s work, and you can almost always spot a Rockwell painting…but there are a whole lotta guys who were doing pretty much what Rockwell was doing and they were all pretty much interchangeable.[2]

Norman ROCKWELL Christmas Homecoming 1948

This is not to diminish the talent or the ability or the skill sets of Rockwell’s direct competitors, but the difference among them was pretty slight, typically one of degrees, never of magnitude.

Amos Sewell - baseball-in-the-hospitalcase in point:  Amos Sewell

Cross to the other side of the street to see what Edward Hopper was doing with the same subject matter and --

HOLY @#%& -- LOOK AT THAT LIGHT!!!

edward hopper - nighthwk

NOBODY EVER SAW LIGHT THAT WAY BEFORE!!!

Whatever Rockwell saw in a scene, Hopper saw something…else. He saw something that was truly unique, something that no other artist had ever put on canvas before.

conference-at-night

Something we had all seen but had never realized we had seen, and so when we saw it through his eyes it was a shock to the system, a startling realizing that yes…it was like that…it did look that way!

Summer Evening by Edward Hopper

Hopper didn’t rely on us to bring our own past knowledge to the experience; Hopper brought something we didn’t even know existed.

Office at Night

And that would have been remarkable by itself, but Hopper took it several steps further.

morning-sun_custom

He used light as no one ever used it before, taking the quality of his light -- be it a melancholy setting sun or an office like by a single stark bulb or a nether zone of shadow between the dreamscape of the cinema and the tawdry lurid lights of the lobby -- and putting it to work to literally shade and illuminate his characters.

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It’s pretty easy to figure out the story in any Rockwell painting, and with the exception of the occasional rained out baseball game we know it’s going to be a happy ending.

hotel-lobby

Not so with Hopper. There are dark, unseen melancholies we can’t recognize not because we are unfamiliar with them but because we are too familiar with them, locking them up and blocking them off deep in our hearts, pretending they do not exist.

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Hopper brings them forth, and we are forced to admit we have no pat, happy answers to banish them, that they will stay with us now, circling around the edges of our consciousness, a sad but constant reminder that we are not the masters of our fates / the captains of our souls that we want to be.

Kinda special for daubs of paint of stretched cloth, huh?

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[1] As distinguished from hack work.   Hack work exists all along the spectrum.

[2] Don’t believe me, go look at the “slick” magazine covers of the 1940s – 60s: Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Liberty, plus dozens of regional and special interest magazines. If Rockwell had been abducted by aliens in 1940 the genre would never have missed him and would have continued on pretty much as it did, only with more work for the other guys.

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