There are no Hopper paintings in Nyack, New York, just north of New York City and across the Hudson River from wealthy suburban Westchester County. Rather, there are several, but none that I needed to see. The ones here were from very early in his life, and they hung on the walls of the home in which he was born and in which his older sister Marion lived her whole life. The house was scheduled for demolition, but locals stepped in and made it a museum. Today, the artist's birthplace is itself a work of art: Hopper House is on the National Register of Historical Places.
Just as Hopper's paintings make us think of a time gone by, the house is definitely of a different era. Originally built in 1858 by Edward's mom's dad, Hopper's father Garret moved in after marrying the owner's daughter, Elizabeth Smith, in 1878.
Some aspects of the house looked like elements from houses in Hopper's paintings: green full-length shutters on white clapboard siding. Broad planks of blonde wood covered the floors, and white plaster moulding outlined the ceilings. A steep imposing stairway barreled down into the front door. Mounted over the fireplace was one of Hopper's paintbrushes, a gift from one of his friends. Nothing on display here was donated by Hopper himself. He didn't much care for Nyack.
The room to the right of the front door was added when Edward was born and now held the reception desk, where a smiling blond woman in her sixties sat talking to a square-jawed young man who held a motorcycle helmet. The women introduced herself as Pat. The man never gave me a name, but said that he was an actor in New York City who had come up to Nyack for the day.
When I told them why I was visiting, Pat gushed, "People in Nyack aren't isolated. In Westchester, yes, people are isolated. We moved from there because we wanted more of a feeling of community. Neighbors said, 'Nyack! How the hell do you get there?' You know, to them, when you're talking over the river, you're talking another world."
About Hopper's work, she frowned, "It can be, I think, overwhelming."
"I just think Hopper's the greatest," the actor dove in. "There's so many layers of isolation, physical as well as emotional. The idea of people living in proximity over the course of an entire life, whether married or a family or a small town. The internal estrangement, the not-understanding, and the existential isolation. I've experienced that my whole life: the idea of being around so many people but being alone."
"Part of what I see Hopper saying," he raved, "is, 'America is so big, I'm just going to show you this small part.' Even if it's just a piece of a train track so there's the idea of distance or travel or something that can't be captured. People tend to want to attach certain events in Hopper's life to the ideas in his paintings. But when something becomes universal, it really has to stand on its own. When you turn to exposition, intuition evaporates: those things you're not defining but you are experiencing get lost when you try to formalize it in language. My dad was an artist for the first part of his life, but now both my parents are classical musicians."
"No wonder you're a thinker," Pat nodded.
Someone stopped in and asked Pat for directions to a local business. At this break in the action, two short, round-faced women approached me from the gift shop.
"Can you tell us which of these prints looks more like the real painting?" one asked. "We heard you say you were writing a book about Hopper." They showed me two posters of Hopper's Rooms by the Sea. I pointed them to the one that was paler, in general a good bet: Hopper's paintings in person have a thin sheen of paint that is almost see-through.
They introduced themselves as Maria and Leslie, sisters. Maria was shorter and pregnant. She wore glasses and spoke in sweet little-girl tones. Leslie was taller, with round shoulders and a husky voice. They said they had to leave right then but offered to address my question later that night at Maria's house after dinner.