By Rory Colburn, V Form
The Contrasting 1920’s of Edward Hopper and F. Scott Fitzgerald
Edward Hoppers’ oil paintings are reflective of American social and cultural changes in the 1920’s and the industry that shaped a new way of life for many Americans. Edward’s style accentuates dramatic light, architecture, and solitary figures. His conservative background and political views, although contradictory of the Harlem Renaissance’s social characteristics, do not affect most of his work. Hopper instead, emulates common or modern scenes with his paintings of the American twenties. This lack of partisanship in most of his paintings evokes a rare, mostly unbiased look into modern life during the 1920’s and the Harlem Renaissance. In Contrast, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary work, The Great Gatsby, depicts the profligacy and extravagance of New York in the 1920’s through an ambitious, young man’s perspective. Fitzgerald attributes certain colors and social qualities to the affluent upper class characters that differ from Hopper’s solitary figures, which hold stoic or even somber visages. Hopper and Fitzgerald are both essential to understanding the social attributes of opposing social classes in the 1920’s.
Edward Hopper was born into a middle-class family in Nyack, New York in 1882. His career after college began in illustration for magazine covers; however, he soon began to favor more classic art practices, such as oil paints, watercolors, and etching. Hopper became famous for his oil paintings, which are featured in large museums, such as MOMA, and accumulated large amounts of commercial success during his lifetime. Hopper, being from a middle-class family, did not experience the plight of most Harlem Renaissance artists or musicians; however, he still depicts the aspects of modern urban life with incredible accuracy and depth. His upbringing and conservative nature do not affect most of his depictions of this era. Instead, he or the viewer takes on the role of a voyeur, allowing for an evocation of a personal opinion. Most of his paintings have very definitive depictions of the era, while allowing for some personal assumptions of the scenes.
In Edward Hoppers’ painting “Chop Suey,” completed in 1929, there are two very clear points a modern, educated viewer can infer from the painting, that relate to the time period. First, the women in this painting are eating lunch together. This occurrence was uncommon, until this period, when women with jobs in urban settings would eat lunch together during their break. Before this time period and the major success of women’s suffrage, men accompanied women, when they went out to restaurants or cafes because of society’s patriarchal tendencies. Another point is evident in the title and in the background of this painting. Chop suey is an example of cultural syncretism that occurred in many urban centers, during this time period, due to the increase of immigration. The combination of Asian and American culture persists even to this day with the presence of Chinatowns in many urban centers.
Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad”, completed in 1925, shows the industry in the foreground in stark contrast with traditional Victorian architecture of the house in the background. This painting is, also, one of Hopper’s few pieces that show his conservative nature, while maintaining a clear representation of his core themes. Also, the juxtaposition of the two focal points with complementary colors, light, and direction show that the previous industrial revolutions had had a large impact on society. The railroad, horizontally positioned in the foreground, is telling of the path industry has taken; industry is continuing to grow, and with it, more traditional values have been left behind. This painting is a clear depiction of modern values in industry, but Hopper is remorseful of these standards because of his conservative, traditional beliefs. By portraying the Victorian house in the background with a somber blue, he is evoking remorse because the house almost fades into the sky.
Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota into an upper-middle class family in 1896. He attended Princeton University but struggled to maintain sufficient grades, because he was primarily focusing on his writing rather than other schoolwork. Fitzgerald joined the army, however, he was never deployed, as the war had ended. Fitzgerald made his way into New York’s upper class society, with the success of his first novels. These novels encompassed the romantic culture and the wealth of roaring twenties. However, The Great Gatsby, although it encompasses the major themes of that time period, did not become popular until the 1960’s.
Fitzgerald employs vivid descriptions dispersed within the novel that allow the reader to visualize the story with impeccable accuracy. Gatsby’s parties are a view into the excess and luxury of the roaring twenties. This incredible extravagance is portrayed by the live orchestra playing jazz music for Gatsby and his guests. The “yellow cocktail music”(40) and the “sensation”(49) of new jazz compositions reflect the debauchery of the crowds. The music is also present in certain motifs like “the girls in yellow”(51). These women are flappers, a clear indication of advancement in women’s rights in this era. The color of their clothing agrees with the jovial mood and flow of the party. The colors employed by Fitzgerald are an appropriate description of Gatsby’s parties and the 1920’s.
Fitzgerald’s themes, focusing on wealth, are consistent in their description of the roaring twenties. This period of America’s history did, actually, have characters like Gatsby. The vivid descriptions and events within the story are not hyperbole because this was the nature of wealth in this time period. The over-expansion of credit and the overproduction of consumer goods were landmarks of this era. Credit allowed many Americans, who did not necessarily have the resources, to participate in the expanding market of modern appliances. Fitzgerald includes events like the corruption within the 1921 World Series baseball game, because, even though it is outrageous, it actually happened. Fitzgerald also acknowledges the racism and bigotry surrounding the upper class’ attitudes towards the emergence of progressive reform movements.
Edward Hopper and F. Scott Fitzgerald use themes that emulate the 1920’s and Harlem Renaissance’s culture on either side of the social spectrum. Hopper’s upbringing, although different from many artists in the period, does not mar the content of his artwork. Hopper’s political views are less pertinent to his works of art; rather, he focuses on his own themes and the culture of the time period in which he is painting. Hopper’s paintings are excellent examples of his own personal themes and the industry, culture, and social life of Americans after major events, like women’s suffrage and the second industrial revolution. Edward Hopper offers a unique, but accurate, look into the Harlem Renaissance and the 1920’s through incredible paintings. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, portrays the debauchery and lifestyle of the upper class in his novel, The Great Gatsby. His novel reflects his high socio-economic position in society and his background. Fitzgerald even includes some personal experience within characters or settings. By using vivid colors and outrageous descriptions, he captures the extravagance of the era. These two artists have conflicting views of the period in their work. While Fitzgerald focuses on the wealth, Hopper shows the realities of many middle to lower class Americans. However, together these two artists create and accurate image of the 1920’s and the Harlem Renaissance .
Rory Colburn is a V Former from Boston. His favorite classes are history and Latin, and he plays squash and golf.
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