NYACK, N.Y. — In the birthplace village of Edward Hopper, the famed American realist artist (1882-1967), it is a simple thing to note the early morning Hudson River light that he bottled and used in all the paintings of his long career. That was his gift, and it is has been shared with generations, especially in his present, continuing renaissance in America, Europe, elsewhere. Yet we humans, and Hopper was that, too, also have the most ordinary of moments, no matter the ability. Some even suffer in the ordinary for the ability.
When the artist was studying in France and also living in Nyack and in the lower New York City neighborhood where he would spend most of his life, he received short letters — almost conversational tidbits — from a friend, Alta Hilsdale, whom he seems to have loved in the way that you do just once in life. But the emotion was unrequited, and reading the Hilsdale letters, 1904-1914, is a sad experience. It is a classic relationship in which expectations are not shared and are in fact so different that you wonder how it could have lasted a decade.
But it is also a known tale, and that is why romance novels are written in hoped-for explanation. But Hopper did not write, not often anyway (unfortunately, we don’t have his letters to Alta). Nor did he speak much. He painted. That was his language, his expression.
Now, writer Beth Thompson Colleary offers Hopper fans, and actually anyone who explores human interaction, a chance to look into Hopper’s art and mind in her Hilsdale letters collection, “My Dear Mr. Hopper” (Yale University Press). The book is scholarly in that it presents primary source material, allowing the reader to enter the Hopper-Hilsdale relationship. Perhaps the last two letters between artist and the one loved are the most compelling and revealing. The first, Sept. 18, 1914, just two paragraphs long, informs Hopper: “I suppose I shall have to begin to tell some of my friends that I am to be married soon to Mr. Bleecker … We are to live in Brooklyn, at 42 Sidney Place … and if you should care to come over, I would be glad to see you. Always your friend, Alta Hilsdale.”
Imagine, after 10 years of “relationship,” such a short and explosive letter. Hopper may have assumed a developing romance when he should not have done so, but, still, the letter is way too cold. The second letter, written from Brooklyn on Oct. 14, is a bit longer though still short. More a note than a letter. It begins, “I cannot tell you how sorry I am to have made you unhappy.” And it ends with, “I thank you with all my heart for all you have done for me and offered me, and beg you to forgive me for causing you unhappiness. Most sincerely, Alta Hilsdale Bleecker.” That last letter is probably her most emotional one in all the 10 years. (The assumption is Hopper wrote back between Sept. 18 and when she penned the letter on Oct. 14.)
Who knows how the artist handled this loss. He married painter Josephine Nivision 10 years later, and that less-than-romantic union obviously informed his art, since he became most productive and, finally, sellable, with sacrificing cheerleader Jo at his side. And, surely, Alta is in the artistic effort, even if a painful memory.
This brings me to the point of my essay. Hopper appears to have painted just one work set in Brooklyn, where Alta moved in early marriage. Most of his works are about Manhattan or Cape Cod, Maine and Vermont, with some western U.S. scenes. “Room in Brooklyn” (1932) is quite an emotional piece, as Hopper’s paintings are, but this one is very different. Almost all Hopper women are voluptuous or at least sensual, many nude or nearly so. The woman in Brooklyn is fully clothed in a modest dress, sitting in a rocking chair and looking out the window while also apparently reading. We do not see her face, but the brown hair is set in the exact style Alta wore in an early 1900’s portrait of her, perhaps by Hopper. The Brooklyn room is sparse, with an unset table behind the woman. The view is toward what some Hopper scholars see as Hopper himself, that long row of brick tenements, such as in “Early Sunday Morning.” (It is repeated in many paintings.) On the floor near the woman is a shaft of light, the traditional Hopper pointer, as if he were a teacher revealing knowledge.
Is “Room in Brooklyn” a look at Alta 18 years after her last letter? Is she alone for a reason? Is she looking at Edward or the memory of him? Is she re-reading his letter? Is she clothed as the virgin he remembers, or as a woman not fulfilled? Who knows? Hopper is a mystery that even he spent a lifetime exploring.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay is based on an earlier version.