A few weeks back, Miranda and I went to visit the Edward Hopper show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  First off, the exhibit is amazing and it was great to see Hopper’s work in person.  As compared to prints or images of Hopper’s work, the original paintings glow with an almost magical luminescence.  Just standing before some of his iconic paintings was really quite a rush.  But more than that, the exhibit showcased a truly disciplined and dedicated man.  The passion he had for his craft was really quite intoxicating.

The exhibit was broken up into several sections.  Each section showcased one of Hopper’s masterpieces along side dozens of “studies” – sketches that Hopper made to practice drawing portions of the final composition.  One room, containing Hopper’s New York Movie, displayed the painting juxtaposed with all 52 of the sketches that Hopper made to prepare for the final painting.

Like spare parts left on the factory floor, Hoppers drawings detailed alternative ways to present each feature of the composition.  There were sketches that showed the woman standing straight up rather than leaning, there were sketches that showed more people in the audience to the left – there were even five or six sketches that focused entirely on how to present the red drapes to the right of the composition.

The final work, shown below, is the result of months or even years of sketching.  In the end, the theatre shown in Hopper’s work has been traced back to seven different theatres in the New York area.  Hopper no doubt visited all seven and while movies played in the background, he prepared for his masterpiece.


The thing that really impresses me about Hopper is that from a young age, it was clear that he was a naturally gifted artist.  One portion of the exhibit that focuses on Hopper’s school years shows some of his very early self-portraits and life drawing.  It’s clear even in his early work that he was very technically talented when it came to portraying figure on paper.  But what’s more amazing than that is that he was also the most practiced.  In one life drawing class in college he completed more than 600 drawings in one semester – far more than were expected by the course curriculum.

He showed the same discipline in every part of his life.  You may notice that all of the women in Hopper’s paintings look very similar.  The reason for this is because after he was married (to Josephine Nivison) he used her exclusively as his model as to insure she wouldn’t be jealous of him looking at other women.

I spent hours walking around the exhibit just absorbing Hopper’s aura of discipline and dedication.  As the docents swept through the gallery to close the museum at the end of the day I was still sitting there looking at final painting in the gallery: a simple painting of light on a wall.  Walking out of the museum I had a lot of thoughts, but my main take away was this:

The closest thing to a failsafe way to be the best at something is just to be more passionate about it than anyone else.

Edward Hopper at the Whitney: A Study of Passion
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  • You’re conflating passion with work and discipline. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do.

    Passion makes doing the work easier than not being passionate about it, but I’m not sure it’s a driving force towards the work.

    A desire to do excellent work is also probably needed, and not something I would call passion.

  • I was actually thinking this very same principle just shortly after i posted. I think there’s more here.

    Perhaps – it’s easier to be disciplined when you’re passionate about what you’re going. Err – it doesn’t feel like work at all when you’re passionate about your work.

  • Mmm, I’m not so sure I’d call it “passion” at all. Rather, I think it’s about creating meaning (value), or the drive to create meaning.
    Some people don’t see anything worthwhile in art, and would not spend their time working to create art. But if you find artwork meaningful, valuable, then you can spend time crafting value. And the more work goes into it, and the more efficient (disciplined) that work is, the better the result.
    The problem I have with the word “passion” is that it indicates enthusiasm or desire more than it indicates a creative instinct. I think the issue is more about the creation of meaning than about enthusiasm.

  • Hmm – interesting. I see passion as directly related to the desire to create meaning and value. For instance: i’m passionate about writing, so I do it a lot and it (hopefully) creates some value. That being said, i’m sure there are a lot of people who are passionate about things that create little or no value. Went to the dictionary on this one too:

    Passion = strong and barely controllable emotion. I like the word emotion here. Agree it’s related (although somewhat distinct) from enthusiasm.

  • I’ve been having real problems understanding value (what is and is not valuable) recently; largely because of the potential I see for robotics and computers.

    How do you distinguish between valuable and not valuable, Andrew?

    One simple way is that “valuable is whatever makes the world a better place” but that has real implications (how does something make the world a better place? Does making movies make the world a better place? Does that mean that people enjoying the movies derive value, i.e. it makes them happier? Doesn’t it follow that the benefit they receive is valuable? So, then, is watching TV valuable? If it is not valuable, then how is making a TV show valuable? If that isn’t valuable, then what is? Ending world hunger? )

  • I see your point. Tricky to define value. I see it in two lights.

    First, from an economic standpoint, it’s pretty straight forward because people vote with their money. Value is anything that someone is willing to pay for.

    However, to your point, that doesn’t really feel compete because there are plenty of things people are willing to pay for that aren’t “valuable” (in the greater meaning of the word) and many “valuable” things that people do that no one pays them for.

    Because the economic definition of value falls short, we need another piece. The second part of the definition here has to do with social value and higher order quality of deeds. However, like all matters of “quality” this is impossible to objectively define.

    So here’s my two part definition:

    Value is:

    1) Anything that someone is willing to pay for


    2) Anything that I think (subjectively) makes the world a better place

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  • OK, thanks for that definition of value, but let me back this out a little.
    If someone is willing to pay money for something, it’s valuable. Does that mean that the same thing is valuable without the monetary transaction? For example, if you do it yourself or between friends.
    Can we assume then that e.g. reading a book, watching a movie, etc are all valuable activities?
    Given that people have different amounts of money, and people with more money are more willing to spend money at all, and can spend money on more things – do we look at wealthy people and assume that how they spend their money is valuable?
    Is there some kind of ROI here, such that we can measure value transferred?
    For instance, how do you measure the value of something that an individual with twice the average income pays for, but the person on an average income does not pay for. Some people pay – does that make it valuable? How valuable?
    More simply stated, how do we square value in a whole with wealth disparity?

  • Bonnie Tocher Clause

    I see that you were in Vermont in July, and so I wonder if you saw the Hopper exhibition at the Middlebury College Museum of Art? If not, too bad; I think you would have enjoyed it and found more food for thought about Hopper’s nature as well as his skill and talent. The Vermont works (watercolors and drawings) show Hopper as more meditative than passionate, I think–but nevertheless highly disciplined. Take a look at my web site / blog for more: http://www.hoppervermont.com. Cheers!

  • Bonnie,
    Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Unfortunately I did not get to see the Hopper at Middlebury, but it sounds like it was a great exhibit. Just checked out your website – it seems that you know Hopper much better than I since you’ve written the book on him! Thanks again – Andrew