A stir rippled through the art world this week on news of an exciting discovery about the works of Edward Hopper. British graduate student Louis Shadwick, who is researching his doctorate on Hopper, has concluded three of Hopper's earliest works are far from original and are, in fact, copies of other artists' work. Shadwick was researching early influences on Hopper, but with the eye of a real art sleuth has instead learned that Hopper learned his craft by copying others, perhaps even following instructions from an amateur painter's magazine. While it is not at all unusual for young painters and art students of this time to learn by copying, or reproducing, previous works, it is rather unprecedented to learn this of Edward Hopper, who has long been considered a true American original.
Even as I'm only recently getting into art as an interest and passion, Hopper's iconic Night Hawks has long been a favorite painting of mine, with its stark image of three individuals "alone in their thoughts" at a late night diner. It is an eerie and poignant image of Americana for me, and I've always been intrigued by Hopper's mesmerizing portrait of stoicism and individuality. So, while I was intrigued by the story of Shadwick's discovery, I was equally fascinated by the insightful commentary in the New York Times by art critic Blake Gopnik.
Noting that copying paintings was common before the "freedom of modern art," Gopnik is intrigued by Shadwick's wondering about the "Americaness" that Hopper lived in and was influenced by. It's a concept we have long grappled with as a country and an identity, and I've long been interested in the artistic portrayals of the "lone American." From the frontier hero of James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumpo Leatherstocking tales to Huck on the raft "lighting out for the territories" and Holden longing to protect innocence from the phoniness of the world, the rugged individualism necessary to carve out a living amidst a wilderness is part of the American story. And, the concept of innocence and individual integrity identified by RWB Lewis as "The American Adam" has been our myth and our legend. It's Gatsby reaching out to the green light, and it's a contemporary America wondering if we "can't all just get along."
If even Hopper is not, in fact, quintessentially American, then what is this national idea we seek to identify and define ourselves by. In the past decade or so, it has become a conflict to determine, in Gopnik's words "does it need to be made great again or does it need to face up to its failures?" These are serious questions, the kind which customers in late night diner might be pondering. And we've been thinking about it for at least as long as early American writer Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crevecouer asked "What then is this American, this new man?"