Vermeer & Hopper

Vermeer & Hopper – analyzing the works of Edward Hopper and Jan Vermeer

Philip Leider

Hamlet: –Have you a daughter?

Polonius: I have, my lord.

Hamlet: Let her not walk i’ the sun: conception is a blessing; but as your daughter may conceive, –friend, look to ‘t.

–Hamlet, Act II, scene 2

It’s surprising how many of Vermeer’s works involve a kind of spying, or rather a kind of harried surveillance, the anxious glances of, say, a distracted artist-father or a busy innkeeper. Take the viewpoint of The Music Lesson (ca. 1662-65), for example: the line of sight is low, somewhere between the tabletop and the windowsill. The subject is glimpsed across the length of the room as if by someone rushing by, perhaps up or down a staircase, perhaps over the lower half of a “Dutch” door. In The Artist in His Studio (or The Art of Painting), ca. 1667, the unseen observer is roughly level with the figures, as if standing in an open doorway, or looking through a window, again across the room. The Concert (ca. 1665-66) creates the same impression, by the same means. Considering the invisibility of this onlooker, how much we are given to sense about him is remarkable: we have the impression of an observe who cannot satisfy himself that all is as it seems.

Sometimes the girl–most commentators seem to agree that the women in these pictures are Vermeer’s daughters, or in some, his wife–looks up in surprise, perhaps hearing a footstep, a creak, maybe a greeting, as in the Frick’s Gentleman and Girl with Music (ca. 1660). Her expression is rarely completely open. Here, the wineglass twinkles: her look seems almost, but not quite, one of annoyance at the intrusion. Who can be certain of that look? There is always, in these works, more than we see: a ripple of anxiety crosses the room with the glance of the observer. Often, even when the girl is alone and the returned glance is reasonably open, reasonably innocent, reasonably guileless, a painting on the wall takes the place of the dangerous male presence, signaling to us what the anxious father hopes is not there, as in Young Woman Standing at a Virginal or Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (both ca. 1672). And sometimes, as in Gentleman and Girl Drinking (ca. 1658-60), the anxious eye sees the sight it dreads the most, the confirmation of its worst fears: the arrogant cavalier, the pitifully vulnerable child–drinking! How stiffly she holds the glass, how rigid is her posture, how unsmiling her face! The smile is on the face of the seducer, who stands at ease, hand on the decanter aimed like a pistol at the leaden heart of the onlooker.

It seems to have been a legacy of the wars, this residual distrust of the smirking dandy.(1) He is identified with that useless, parasitic class of noble officers who had so brutally imposed themselves on honest burghers and on their women. There were still Hollanders alive who remembered when a lower-middle-class daughter was simply a “wench.” Such a girl, it was assumed, came into the world with the morals of a cat. Before its middle-class revolution, Holland was filled with paintings depicting such women cheerfully using their sexual wiles to fleece the wet-behind-the-ears youth of the better classes. But no more: in Vermeer’s time, the women of the middle classes, free to assert their modesty and decency, proved themselves even more chaste than the women of the so-called better classes. As a matter of ideology, Judith Leyster’s The Offer Refused (1631) gives the lie to Dirck van Baburen’s The Courtesan (1622), painted in the bad old days, a work which Vermeer owned.

Even more chaste. It’s unusual that the clearest light thrown on the state of affairs I wish to describe comes from an analysis of the novel–Leslie Fiedler’s classic, Love and Death in the American Novel. (The distance between the early American novel and 17th-century Holland is not as great as it first appears: after all, many of America’s earliest settlers sailed from 17th-century Holland.) Fiedler analyzes what he calls the “bourgeois novel of seduction,” in which, typically, the Seducer is a nobleman and the girl he attempts to seduce of humbler stock. In Fiedler’s view, the claim to moral equality of an entire class rests upon the girl’s ability to resist the Seducer:

In this sense the novel is the long-delayed answer of the lower classes to the courtly pastourelle…. It is a protest, democratic and sentimental at once, against the courtly love codes and the sexual tyranny which they disguised. It rejects alike the conviction that love must be adulterous and the off-hand assumption that the lord of the manor has a right to take whatever girl of inferior rank is pleasing to him…. The bourgeois novel … asserts the sexual rights of its daughters as persons, capable of consent or refusal. But its protest against seduction is metaphorical as well as literal; through [it] a whole class cries: We will be raped and bamboozled no more!(2)

The circumstances of a middle-class revolution thus thrust upon the women of that same class the duty of carrying, in the form of their maidenhead, the burden of the argument of moral equality:

She is a Protestant Virgin … the bourgeois Maiden, whose virginity is the emblem of the ethical purity of her class, the soul of a world whose body is money; and upon her triumph and fall the fate of that class symbolically depends.(3)

If we look at the Frick’s Officer and Laughing Girl (ca. 1655) with this notion in mind, the painting vibrates with unfamiliar meanings. Talk about a “male gaze”! As seen by a worried father, the huge cavalier dominates the picture. The brim of his hat takes up more space than the entire upper body of the girl. That arrogant, infuriating elbow pushing out of the picture plane clears the space which the soldier needs to operate. By comparison, the girl is diminished. The light, blinding when contrasted to the shadowy space in which the cavalier sits, advertises her innocence, her uneasiness, the tightness of her smile. The wineglass seems empty; she is trying to refuse another without setting him off.

In this worried concern with the ability of our chaste and credulous daughters to resist the swaggering attractions of handsome louts lies the source of that corrosive doubt which soon enough came to poison the relationship between the sexes on almost every level. Indeed, the beginnings of this development can already be found in Vermeer’s work, most particularly those pictures which involve maids and letters–the two go hand in hand as symbols of deception. A pair of paintings will stand for the lot: The Letter (ca. 1670-72), in which a complicitous maid hovers, ready to deliver a letter to someone apparently waiting outside the window, and the incredible Love Letter (ca. 1669-70), in which Vermeer is at such pains to force the presence of the unseen observer onto the viewer that scholars continue to debate whether the scene is glimpsed through an open door or is reflected in a mirror ordinarily covered by the drapery in the upper right. The question both paintings raise is a painful one for this new class (us, actually) taking possession of the world for the first time. Could they–the old Dutch military and social nobility–have been right? Are our wives and daughters lascivious by nature, simply born that way?.

But other works continue to declare the untroubled confidence of a new beginning founded on values hitherto despised: hard work, cleanliness, domesticity. Indeed, in paintings like The Milkmaid (ca. 1658-60) and the Metropolitan’s overwhelming Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662), we, more than three centuries later, cannot help but feel a jealous wonder at the simple unclouded sincerity with which the Dutch bourgeoisie elevated their everyday lives to a status that was almost holy.

After the publication of The Waste Land (1922), a whole generation–Edward Hopper’s generation, in fact–looked at the entire pre-19th- and 20th-century past with a jealous wonder. Eliot had taught them the properly sardonic attitude with which to view their own time, whose sterility–the theme of The Waste Land–made it a difficult subject for art. Only by way of ironic counterpoint to the richness of the past could the present be spoken of at all. It was Joyce’s Ulysses above all (also published in 1922) that provided the method. As Eliot observed:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him…. It is simply a way of controlling, or ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history…. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art.(4)

On and off for most of his long career, Hopper, I would contend, manipulated “a continuous parallel” between his own art and that of Vermeer and achieved exactly what Joyce achieved: “giving a shape and a significance” to what had become of Vermeer’s world 300 years later. Although I know of no occasion on which Hopper explicitly acknowledged a debt to Vermeer (indeed, I am tempted to think he studiously avoided the subject), I wish nevertheless to argue that Hopper’s utilization of Vermeer is as deliberate, systematic and pointed as Joyce’s use of the Odyssey, and that we do not, for example, engage the full depth of Hopper’s despair in a painting like Early Sunday Morning (1930) unless we see it, in our mind’s eye, juxtaposed to Vermeer’s The Little Street (ca. 1658).(5) It is precisely the kind of contrast a generation taught to see the modern world with The Waste Land’s eyes would most appreciate: sterility amplified by fecundity, despair amplified by assurance, death-in-life by wholehearted welcome of the day.

If Eliot and Joyce played what they saw as a spiritually and culturally rich past against the “futility and anarchy” of the present, was this Hopper’s purpose as well? In part, yes, but in his work another, obsessionally American purpose compelled him: it was the need to participate in the crusade–this is not too strong a word–against the hated remnants of American Puritanism. The arts in America–including poetry (Pound, Williams), the novel (Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis) and drama (O’Neill)–appear in retrospect to have been united, whatever their differences, around the idea that the Puritan ideals brought to these shores by the country’s very founders had decayed into an ossified and hypocritical moral cant which had brought the American psyche to the point of breakdown. That same generation, which also took deeply to heart (Freud being as formative in its worldview as Joyce and Eliot) The Waste Land’s equivalence of sexual sickness with social sickness, set about to lay bare the unspoken tensions between outer forms and inner life that had turned American lives into depressed, robotic patterns of living lies. In all spheres–domestic, business, political and religious, but most of all in the relations between the sexes–they sought to reveal the unbearable repression (a favorite word) of inner needs that by the 20th century had alienated Americans almost completely from one another’s truest feelings.

By way of illustrating the pervasiveness of these views, a comparison between Hopper’s Room in Brooklyn (1932)(6) and an almost identical image of celibate loneliness in the last pages of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) is striking:

Oh, Carrie, Carrie! … for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such a happiness as you may never feel.(7)

Indeed, the publication history of Sister Carrie itself–the book was withdrawn from sale in 1900 by the publisher after “public outcry” over Carrie’s scandalous sexual behavior–is an example of the stifling of expression, especially in matters of sex, against which all the arts in America found themselves at war. The kind of truths implied in paintings like Room in Brooklyn or Eleven A.M. (1926)–unfulfillment, abandonment, hopelessness–were flatly unacceptable when voiced in Sister Carrie, and even as late as 1932 could not be openly discussed.

The vehicle with which Hopper addresses–among other things, of course–this universal issue in the arts of his time is the contrast between the vitalizing puritanism of Vermeer’s world and its bitter consequences 300 years later. It does not require an awareness of Hopper’s continuous manipulation of the parallel between his art and Vermeer’s to feel the pain of sexual despair and crucifying loneliness in Morning in a City (1944) or Hotel Room (1931), but these feelings are certainly more poignant if we have Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter (1657) or Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1664) in our mind’s eye as we contemplate them.

Hopper’s utilization of Vermeer’s active, narrative-advancing light has about it the same lacerating reversal of purpose as Joyce’s substitution of Leopold Bloom for Ulysses. As Bloom’s heroism, such as it is, is a caricature of that of Ulysses, so Hopper’s light is a monstrous inversion of the light in Vermeer. Where sunlight in Vermeer everywhere symbolizes propagative life, sunlight in Hopper is cold and sterile, unable even to “breed maggots in a dead dog” (Hamlet). The light in Woman with a Pearl Necklace is like an embrace; in Morning in a City it is like radiation.

Hopper keeps Vermeer before our eyes by evoking several of his most conspicuous techniques: in addition to his light, his simplicity and his composition. By simplicity I mean here only that there are rarely more than two figures in a work of either of these artists, and that the figures are never shown in action, but instead seem frozen. It was part of Hopper’s inspiration to have realized that Vermeer’s simplicity derives its eerie modernity from the way it anticipated the photograph.

Because Vermeer’s glance-across-the-room composition seems, like a camera lens, to edit nothing and give unwarranted prominence to foreground objects, the theory that the artist honed his special point of view by studying images in the camera obscura seems logical, even self-evident, and corresponds to one of the most commonly voiced of artists’ wishes: to paint “only what we see, forgetting everything that existed before us” (Cezanne).(8) This often finds expression in artists’ talk of the truth of the glance, or the glimpse (de Kooning’s famous “slipping glimpster”). That unedited and unanticipated glimpse was treasured by Hopper, and he found it, for example, in that random view familiar to New Yorkers who had occasion to travel on the city’s elevated trains, especially at night. Those tracks often passed so close to occupied apartment buildings that looking out the train window was almost an invasion of privacy. Speaking of his unsettling Office at Night (1940), Hopper remarked:

The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the “El” train in New York City after dark and glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind. My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air, with the office furniture which has a definite meaning for me.(9)

Both Office at Night and the perhaps even more painful Room in New York (1932) have this momentary, seen-from-the-El flash of vision.

The fleeting view from the El revealed to Hopper, in Room in New York, a spatial arrangement surprisingly similar to that of Gentleman and Girl with Music, and in Office at Night one quite comparable to it, as well as to Gentleman and Girl Drinking. In all four paintings, the distance of the unseen viewer from the scene is similar, as is the placement of objects. Indeed, it is tempting to imagine that the “definite meaning” of the nondescript office furniture lies in its contrast with the sensuous, tactile interiors of Vermeer, the latter symbolizing for Hopper a “warm” culture, while his own was a frigid one. What is eliminated in both of Hopper’s paintings is the atmosphere of sexual tension, of seductive give-and-take, of human engagement. Hopper’s figures are in the same room but not together; they are sexually starved and withdrawn, pasty-skinned, screaming inwardly.

Hopper remains to this day the only American painter, in spite of later artists’ talk of “Myth,” who was able to integrate into his work some of the paralleling techniques which revolutionized poetry and the novel during the decades in which high American art was germinating. “He has turned the Puritan in him,” said his friend Guy Pene du Bois (quoted by Brian O’Doherty in his American Masters), “into a purist, turned moral rigors into stylistic precisions.”(10) His accomplishment is considerable, making him one of the very few artists whose work cuts across all the lines of contention that characterized his times. Whether committed to an art that is depictive or abstract, America-centered or Europe-centered, color-oriented or structure-oriented–everyone loves Hopper.

(1.) The religious wars between Spain and the Netherlands lasted for 80 years and concluded in 1648.

(2.) Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, New York, Dell Publishing Co., 1966 (first published 1960), p. 72.

(3.) Ibid., p. 67. Some scholars believe Vermeer’s family to have been Catholic, although there is no direct evidence of this. If, as Andre Malraux and others believe, the Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) is a portrait of Vermeer’s youngest daughter, then my “Protestant Virgin” may be a Catholic in actual fact. The matter is insignificant: what is under discussion is the cultural and class milieu in which Vermeer lived and worked. As for those scholars who find sexual significance in the figure’s parted lips, I know of no more egregious example of ignoring the entire spirit of a work in favor of a detail.

(4.) T.S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order and Myth,” 1923. Reprinted in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1975, pp. 178-79. Widespread blabbing about the saving power of Myth went on until well into the ’40s. Almost every artist of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists had occasion to voice the redeeming energy of Myth, usually, but not always, in connection with a fascination with primitive art. Irving Sandler collects a representative sampling in his Triumph of American Painting (New York, Praeger, 1970), of which the most typical in its overheated fervor is Rothko’s 1946 welcome of Clyfford Still into the “small band of Mythmakers”:

Bypassing the current preoccupation with genre and the nuances of formal arrangements, Still expresses the tragic-religious drama which is generic to all Myths at all times, no matter where they occur. He is creating new counterparts to replace the old mythological hybrids who have lost their pertinence in the intervening centuries. For me, Still’s pictorial dramas are an extension of the Greek Persephone Myth. As he himself has expressed it, his paintings are “of the earth, the Damned and of the Recreated.” (p. 67)

(5.) These two paintings have been compared before, in the only direct comparison of Hopper and Vermeer of which I am aware, by Dr. Ernst-G. Guse in his essay in a catalogue titled Edward Hopper: Das Fruhwerk (Munster, Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe, 1981, p. 41) accompanying a 1981 Hopper exhibition at the Westfalisches Landesmueum in Munster. (The show originated at the Whitney Museum.) I would like to thank Joel Eigen for bringing this article to my attention, and Ines Gander-Austern for going to the trouble of translating it for me.

(6.) In its space, geometry, the prominence of the vase, the placement of the red-covered table in the left foreground, and the sense of the viewer passing by, I know of no other Hopper that more explicitly evokes Vermeer’s techniques than Room in Brooklyn.

(7.) Quoted in Fiedler, p. 252.

(8.) This subject is explored with great ingenuity in Joel Isaacson’s “Constable, Duranty, Mallarme, Impressionism, Plein Air and Forgetting,” Art Bulletin, September 1994, pp. 427-50.

(9.) Quoted by Gail Levin, Edward Hopper, The Art and the Artist, New York, W.W. Norton, 1980, p. 58.

(10.) Brian O’Doherty, American Masters: The Voice and the Myth in Modern Art, New York, E.P. Dutton, 1982 (first published 1974), p. 25.

“Vermeer and the Delft School” opens this month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [Mar. 8-May 27]; it will travel to the National Gallery, London [June 20-Sept. 16].

Author: Philip Leider lives in Jerusalem, and writes for both Israeli and American publications.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Brant Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group