Ray Carney's American Vision:
Edward Hopper's A Woman in the Sun
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When John Sloan dismissed French Impressionist work in toto as "eyesight painting," his remark went to the heart of the difference between the two traditions. Homer, and the painters within the tradition with which Sloan sought to affiliate himself, are engaged in a deliberate attempt to move beyond the perceptions of the social, sexual, and physical eye–to open another eye in our being altogether: an eye not of sight (though it must be rendered in terms of sight), but of insight–the mind's eye that registers our dreams, fears, and desires. Whereas the French Impressionists regale us with the seductive pleasures of the body and the life of the senses, Homer, Eakins, and Hopper, in an Emersonian way, practice a transcendental painting that attempts to make bodies transparently responsive to universal currents of feeling.
Notwithstanding their superficial similarity of subject matter, that is why there is all the difference in the world between Degas' bathers drying themselves alone in a room and Hopper's naked women standing alone at sunrise or sunset in their bedrooms. Whereas Degas' figures are withdrawn into a pure, physical awareness of their own bodies–he aptly compared them to cats washing themselves–Hopper's gesture in the opposite direction–imaginatively outward, beyond the frame of the painting, out of the physical space in which they stand, to a state of imaginative heightening. Hopper's women, without sacrificing their physicality, bathed in sunlight, have a luminist spirituality and ineffability. If Degas' figures represent a pure life of the senses, Hopper's women, like Homer's, represent the life of the mind, the soul, and the imagination. Though we cannot see the window through which the woman is looking in A Woman in the Sun, our eye is carried out through the window to her left to the line of hills outside of her room, as a visionary release from the physical confinements of the room and the shallow perspectival space of the painting itself. The lovely roundness and greenness of those hills (in contrast to the sharp, gray, rectilinearity of the boxlike room) is something this woman participates in, Hopper shows us in two different ways: not only by making their curves echo the curves of her breasts, buttocks, and thighs, but additionally by making the patch of floor she stands on take on the same green hues as the outdoor scene. If one wanted further confirmation of the figure's imaginative participation in the pastoral world beyond the walls of the room in which she stands, it is given by the evidence of the breeze that bathes her body (apparent in the blowing of the curtain she faces). Just as in his Evening Wind etched forty years earlier, Hopper uses the presence of the breeze, as it is represented by the movement of the curtains, to draw the mind of the viewer and the imagination of the work's figure outward, outside of her physical confinements. (This is a use of the wind in a painting that Hopper very likely learned from Homer, who does much the same thing by representing the way the breeze blows the clothing of many of his figures.)
At the same time, the American Romantic position needs to be distinguished from the languid, nostalgic, world-renouncing impulses of pre-Raphaelite and Edwardian art and criticism, which focus on states of reverie, spirituality, and aesthetic emotion. This is not the time or place for a critical history of this tradition, which would have to begin with the poetry and prose of Keats and Shelley; consider the poetry of Tennyson, Swinburne, Moore, and Yeats; include the drawings of Beardsley, the essays of Pater, the novels of Meredith and the Brontės, and social/aesthetic phenomena like The Yellow Book; and look ahead to lingering reverberations in the criticism of Fry, Reade, Clive Bell, and the fiction of Joyce and Woolf. Suffice it to say that Homer and Eakins were contemporaries of Rossetti, Hunt, Burne-Jones, and Millais, just as Hawthorne and James were roughly contemporaries of Tennyson and Pater, and that both the pre-Raphaelite position and the fin de siecle Aesthetic Movement appealed powerfully to American artists insofar as both American and British artists shared the aspiration to break away from the historical traditions of the past and the social encumbrances of the present in order to achieve fresher, more spiritual possibilities of relationship.
The differences between the two positions are at least as important as the similarities, however. Those in the British tradition believed that a deliberate distancing of oneself from the felt-to-be compromising forms and forces of social expression and interaction was a necessary precondition to free personal or artistic expression. Pre-Raphaelite and Edwardian artists typically retreated from the ethical and social confusion of contemporary life into a mythical past, and into the work of art itself as a self-contained universe of autonomous meaning. They aspired to escape into a land of romance and imagination. For the American artist in the tradition I am describing, though, romance represented not an escape from the world but (as Hawthorne wrote in the introduction to The Scarlet Letter) a "neutral territory between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet." Though Hawthorne calls it neutral territory, in most American work it is in fact the opposite of neutral. It is a place where the rival claims of "the Actual and the Imaginary" are put into competition and conflict, usually to outright war. In any case, for these American artists the Imaginary and the Actual are not alternatives as the pre-Raphaelites conceived of them. In American art imagination is thought to be, with however complex or painful consequences, potentially expressible in the real world. In the greatest American art, imagination is never "pure"; it is savingly impure, since it is forced to be mediated in practical, social forms of expression....
The preceding material is a brief excerpt from Ray Carney's writing about American painting. To obtain the complete text of this piece or to read more discussions of American art, thought, and culture by Prof. Carney, please consult any of the three following books: American Vision (Cambridge University Press); Morris Dickstein, ed. The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture (Duke University Press); and Townsend Ludington, ed. A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States (University of North Carolina Press). Information about how to obtain these books is available by clicking here.