Hopper was born in 1882 in Nyack, a small town forty miles north of New York City, where his father ran a store. His family encouraged his artistic talent but persuaded him to enroll on a commercial illustration course at college, reasoning that it would provide better prospects. Two years later he switched to focus on painting. This early experience of studying in New York was to shape much of his work, both stylistically and thematically.
Two paintings in this room, in particular, foreshadow the preoccupations to come. One, Solitary Figure in a Theatre, made while still at art school, depicts a shadowy theatre-goer before an empty stage. Hopper was fascinated by theatre and was also an avid film goer, a sense of dramatic anticipation permeates his work. Stairway at 48 rue de Lille, shows the interior stairway leading to the flat where Hopper boarded on a visit to Paris. The tight cropping and deep shadows are almost cinematic, giving the work an air of expectancy, as though someone is about to enter or has just exited the frame.
Hopper made his first trip to Paris in the autumn of 1906, aged 24, having finished art school the previous spring. He described his impressions in a letter home: ‘The roofs are all of the Mansard type and either of grey slate or zinc. On a day that’s overcast, this same blue-grey permeates everything.’ But it wasn’t the emerging contemporary avant-garde who drew his attention. ‘Whom did I meet? Nobody,’ he later admitted. ‘I’d heard of Gertrude Stein, but I don’t remember having heard of Picasso at all.’ Instead, among French painters, he was inspired by earlier generations, Manet, Degas, Pissaro, Sisley, Monet and Cézanne.