LOWRY HILL — The curator of drawings for the Whitney Museum of American Art was combing through the museum’s Edward Hopper archive when he came across an intriguing chalk sketch the painter made around 1941 or ’42.
It wasn’t much more than a few horizontal and vertical lines on a yellowed sheet of paper, but Carter Foster noticed something others, apparently, had missed. Foster turned the paper upside down, and there it was: the frame of the iconic diner window from “Nighthawks,” Hopper’s most famous painting.
The drawing is one of 10 studies for “Nighthawks” included in “Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process,” an exhibition that opened last year in New York City, traveled to Dallas and arrived at the Walker Art Center in March. It draws on the Whitney’s collection of 2,500 Hopper works on paper and also includes 22 of his paintings.
“Nighthawks” isn’t one of them — owned by Art Institute of Chicago, it’s currently on loan to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Tex. — but here you can see its composition evolve through a series of preparatory drawings. By the final study, Hopper has his three lonely diners set at the counter and he has drawn dark shadows around the light that spills from the restaurant’s corner window.
Included, too, are sketches of coffee urns and the patrons, probably made on excursions from his longtime studio in New York City’s Washington Square. Hopper observes a man in a suit and fedora as he sits at a diner counter much like the one in “Nighthawks,” working quickly in chalk to capture his pose and blocking out shadows with a scribble.
Foster described drawing as the “connective tissue” of Hopper’s work. The diner isn’t a real place, but probably an amalgamation of storefronts and restaurants near his studio. It’s through drawing that Hopper transformed the real world he observed into the imagined one of his paintings.
Hopper was born in 1882, which may seem surprising, since his best-known works were made in the 1940s and ’50s. He was in late middle age by then, but his first real commercial and critical success as a painter hadn’t come until 1924, when he in his forties.
For the first half of his career, Hopper made his living as a magazine and advertising illustrator, work he by all accounts detested. That doesn’t change the fact that he was a fantastic draftsman.
Hopper studied at the New York School of Art from 1900 to 1906, and a selection of student drawings not only demonstrate how skilled he was even then, they show hints of the dramatic use of light that was a hallmark of his paintings.
After graduating, Hopper went to Paris to paint, one of two trips to Europe he made around that time. He also carried a sketchbook, making pen-and-ink drawings as he sat in sidewalk cafes.
There is a large selection of the Paris sketchbook pages at the Walker, and they are an amusing departure from Hopper’s more typical style. He veers away from realism, caricaturing Parisian types: the paunchy gentleman in his towering top hat, the corseted dame and the old wino wrapped in a cape, among others. A shadow-eyed “maquereau,” or pimp, is one of several characters who reappear in a 1914 painting of a café scene, “Soir Bleu.”
Back in the U.S., it took another decade for Hopper to break through as a painter and for his distinctive brand of realism to clearly emerge.
“Office at Night,” a 1940 treasure from the Walker’s collection, is a wonderful example of Hopper’s psychologically fraught mature painting: two figures alone in a small office stuffed with heavy mid-century furniture, neither looking at the other. A breeze ruffles the drawstring on a window shade, and light from the street rakes across a wall.
A series of sketches shows how Hopper adjusted the lighting and position of the figures and, crucially, developed the painting’s off-kilter perspective, which seems to amplify the tension. His paintings from this era were in dialogue with Hollywood film noir; a regular cinemagoer, he was inspired by film while also inspiring filmmakers with his moody paintings.
When the Walker purchased the painting in 1948, Hopper sent along a letter. In it, he explained how riding the elevated train through New York City after dark inspired his take on the scene, as if glimpsed from above on a passing train.
It suggests another way to view Hopper, not as the artist who claimed painting was difficult and who only completed two or three canvases a year. There was also Hopper the quiet observer, moving through the city and sketching, always sketching.
Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process
WHEN: Through June 20
WHERE: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave.
INFO: walkerart.org, 375-7600