Essay for Art History Course

It seems there’s really no hiding from essay work in college. Just finished my English composition 2 last semester, now I’m taking Art  History with a bunch of essay requirements. Anyway, this is the 3rd essay I wrote for that course about our class tour in the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

Visit to the Philadelphia Museum of
Art: Hopper and Gursky

 “How can two completely different artworks
evoke similar emotion—that weird feeling of calmness yet eerie?”   This
was the question I had in mind as I went back and forth the museum galleries of
the Philadelphia Museum comparing the Edward Hopper’s Road and Trees (1962)(Fig.1) and Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II (1999)(Fig.2). I think most
people won’t notice the uncanny similarities between the two art pieces since
they were placed in the opposite sides of the museum. Road and Trees is right at the entrance of the gallery going to the
American Art, while the Rhein II is
on the other side of the building together with the Modern and Contemporary Art.
Just by the gallery where each work was placed, difference is quite obvious—the
time period. But, hypothetically putting them side-by-side, I think people
would also start to notice the similarities in form and emotion both works

            Edward Hopper was born in 1882 in
Nyack, New York. He had his professional training from 1900-1906 at the New
York School of Art under the painter Robert Henri in the Ash Can School of
painting (Encyclopedia of American Art). Henri wanted his students to paint
everyday American life in a realistic way. In a letter he wrote in 1910, he encouraged
his students to paint their own environment the way it is and the current
situation of the society (Hughes). These artists, like Hopper, who sought to
embody the American life, were known collectively as the “American Scene”
painters. According to Barbara Haskell, “No painter described melancholy more
poignantly or felt it more deeply than Hopper. The sadness that pervades his
work derived from his sense of loss over values and a way of life that had been
abandoned.  The past endures in Hopper’s
paintings, but without vitality or purpose“(Haskell). Loneliness and isolation
has been the subject of Hopper’s painting throughout his career. In 1923,
Hopper married a fellow art student in Henri’s class, Josephine Verstille
Nivision, who has been his model in most of his paintings. He had several
retrospective exhibition particularly in Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1952,
he was chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale (Murphy).
In 1967, Hopper died in New York City, New York (Edward Hopper (1882-1967)). Five years before his death, he painted
the Road and Trees which now hangs in
the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

            Seeing a Hopper painting for the
first time is a revelation to me. I’ve always wanted to see his painting since
I always see his works on the internet when I search for artistic inspiration.
My favorite painting of him is The Nighthawks
and the New City Movie. Both painting
shows a subject preoccupied with his and her thoughts. They are both
disconnected from the world around them. But, how was I able to feel the same
way looking at the Road and Trees? Hopper’s
paintings usually has a sign of human existence— perhaps a human figure or a
building—like in the Nighthawks and
in the New York Movie. This painting
is completely different from the rest of his works I’ve seen before. Road and Trees only shows road and trees
as if you’re looking at them from the other side of the road. The scene seems
compressed as if it was shot with a telephoto lens. Is this a landscape? It’s
very unusual because there no visible horizon unlike most landscape paintings.
What if the experience of loneliness and isolation looking at Road and Trees is because Hopper wants
the viewer to become the subject of this painting? This painting makes the
viewer feel alone in huge world. The compressed perspective makes the whole
scene endless. It doesn’t have an ending on neither left nor right, and having
no definite horizon makes the trees seem so limitless. The natural colors felt
like has a natural calming effect of being in nature with the wind blowing on your
face as it does on the grass and the trees. In this painting, Hopper put the
viewers in the shoes of his subjects—alone in a huge world and disconnected
with thoughts.

            Hopper’s landscape may evoke an isolation
in a huge world through dynamic cropping and composition, but Andreas Gursky’s
photographs show the huge world in a literal sense—by taking a large format
photograph and printing it in large scale. Gursky was born in 1955 in Leizpig,
East Germany. His parents were commercial photographers. He studied in the prestigious
Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1980 and graduated in 1987. His first
solo gallery show was in Cologne in 1988 at Galerie Johnen & Schöttle, and
in the following year he had a museum exhibition at the Museum Haus Lange,
Krefeld. Gursky still continues to a lot of exhibitions. Aside from
exhibitions, he also won several awards including the 1988 Förderpreis des
Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen für junge Künstler, the 1998 Citibank Private Bank
Photography Prize, and the 2001 Infinity Award for Art from the International
Center of Photography, New York. Since 2002, he lives and work in Dusseldorf (Andreas Gursky). His commercial success
was marked by selling the most expensive photograph on record, which is the
same photo that was on exhibit when we visited the Philadelphia Museum of
Art—the Rhein II. Rhein II was sold for $4,338,500 in
November 8, 2011 at Christie’s Post War Contemporary Evening Sale in
Rockafeller Plaza in New York City (Sale
2480/Lot 44

            Looking at Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II, the first thing I noticed was
its size. The print was 73inches by 143 inches. Having seen Hopper’s Road and Trees first, I also noticed the
similarity in size ratio. Rhein II
was at 73x143, while Roads and Trees
was at 34x60 that when you round off each size, you’ll get a ratio of 1:2 for
both works. It might seem to be a minor detail, but that leads me to understand
the most important comparison of the two—the composition. All the horizontal
lines were emphasized because of this ratio. These factors, both the size and
the composition gives this photo a sense of limitlessness—without definite
ending on left and right. Even the horizon right on the middle of the frame
doesn’t suggest an end, but rather a continuation of a world we cannot see. The
color is almost just shades of greens and blues, while the the overall design
is very simple and straight forward. The colors and design is very calming, almost
looks like a minimalist painting. But, just like in Hopper’s painting, this
photo very simple but it puts the viewer in the middle of a huge world by
himself. By the physical size of the print, Gursky puts the viewer closer to
that experience. A situation where some would be calm and reflective, while
others would be uncomfortable and anxious, or maybe both at the same time.

            In conclusion, I personally think
that the subject of the Road and Trees
and Rhein II are not the figures of
roads, trees, and river themselves but the visual experience—that feeling of
isolation and contemplation looking at them. They both evoke that feeling of
being alone and isolated out in nature. With Hopper’s Road and Trees, I can almost feel the wind gently blowing on my
face, while in Gursky’s Rhein II, I
can almost smell the freshness of the grass and the river. But, how did both
the painting of the 60’s and a photograph of the 90s able to achieve similar
emotion? I think it’s the form: the similar composition, the similar perspective,
and the similar color palette. The composition, together with the color
palette, almost minimalistic and calming, while the almost flattened
perspective evokes ambiguity about what we cannot see outside and beyond the
frame of both works. Edward Hopper and Andreas Gursky might have lived in
different era of art and have used different mediums, but these particular
works reminds us that visual emotion felt through looking at art transcends
time and medium through form. So, “How can two completely different artworks
evoke similar emotion”? My answer would be: by the use of composition,
perspective, and color palette—in short, by form. So, next time we look at a
Hopper or a Gursky or any other artists’ works, it’s worth to take some time
and pay attention to the formal elements as they convey hidden details that are
not obvious in the subject.

Works Cited

Andreas Gursky.
Collection Online, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.Web

Edward Hopper (1882-1967). American
Art, The Phillips Collection. Web

of American Art, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1981. Print

Barbara. The American Century: Art &
Culture 1900-1950.
Whitney Museum of Art, 
                  New York, 1999. Print

Robert. The American Visions: The Epic
History of Art in America.
Alfred & Knopf,                    New York,
1997. Print.

Murphy, Jessica. “Edward Hopper
(1882–1967).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New        York:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. Web

Sale 2480/Lot 44. Post War Contemporary Evening Sale, Christie’s. Web.

Using Format