Painted in April 1939, Bridle Path, set in Central Park, masterfully captures Edward Hopper's fascination with the mystery and excitement of New York City. As was typical of Hopper's working method, he made several detailed pencil sketches (Fig. 1) on location, which later served as the basis for the final oil. Jo, Hopper's wife, described the work in her diary, "[Edward] home in peace-made 2 fine sketches of new canvas. Bridle path in Central Park with the city outside-riders on the path. I'm most excited over this new picture-sure it will be outstandingly fine" (Gail Levin, Edward Hopper, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol III, 1995, p. 262). The ambiguity of the narrative in Hopper's paintings, Bridal Path included, spark the imagination and provoke an endless interpretation of the composition and its meaning. As the artist commented, "There is a certain fear and anxiety, a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city" (David Anfam, "Rothko's Hopper: A Strange Wholeness," ed. Sheena Wagstaff, Edward Hopper, 2004, p. 39).
Unlike many of his contemporaries who reveled in the monumentality of New York, Hopper avoided the city's picturesque attractions. Drawn instead to the solitude of the individual within the city's dwellings, saloons, theatres or restaurants, Hopper's works expertly embody the spirit of Manhattan. At a time when much of the art world's focus was beginning to shift towards abstraction, Hopper's poignant pictures of realism, tinged with an element of loneliness, resonated with viewers and critics alike. Art historian Walter Wells notes, "In picture after picture across the range of Hopper's work, almost everyone senses it: the inescapable silence" (Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper, 2007, p. 10).
Hopper was reclusive and chose to find his subject matter by walking the streets, riding the elevated trains, and attending the movies. Growing up in Nyack, forty miles from New York City, the metropolis held a special fascination for him. He graduated from the New York School of Art in 1906 and at the urging of his teacher, Robert Henri, made three separate trips to Europe. Here, between 1906 and 1910 he learned, first-hand, the aesthetic principles of his European predecessors, most notably Edgar Degas. In Hopper's work, the use of diagonals, dramatic cropping, and angled perspectives demonstrate Degas' compositional arrangements and influence. From Degas, Hopper also learned to reduce a composition to its essential elements. As Robert Hobbs writes, "[Hopper's paintings] evoke a desire for the rest of the narrative, and they powerfully convey the break-up of the storyline, the disjunction that is characteristic of modern life. In this manner they awaken in the viewer a desire for the whole, and thus elicit feelings of isolation and loss. The feelings of loneliness experienced by viewers of Hopper's art come from the fact that a continuum has been broken" (Edward Hopper, 1987, p. 16). While in Paris, Hopper also developed an interest in confined spaces and what he perceived as the tension and anxiety they evoke. The artist first addressed the motif in 1906 with Bridge in Paris (Fig. 2, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), and from thereon bridges and tunnels featured prominently in his work, most notably Bridle Path and Approaching a City (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.).
Three years after Hopper's return from Europe, he purchased a small studio in New York's West Village, a neighborhood he would call home for the rest of his life. By 1930, having spent considerable time in lower Manhattan, Hopper began surveying New York's uptown in search of new subjects. The early 1930s was a defining period for the artist. The Museum of Modern Art acquired House by the Railroad in 1930 and Gail Levin writes, "When the Whitney Museum opened its doors in November 1931, Hopper's Early Sunday Morning, purchased the previous year for $3,000 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, was on view...Several months earlier, The Metropolitan Museum of Art had purchased Tables for Ladies, a large oil of 1930, for $4,500, at once enhancing Hopper's representation in New York museums and marking the increasingly high regard for his work" (Edward Hopper, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, p. 10). While no single theme dominated Hopper's work from this period, his enigmatic compositions routinely addressed issues of voyeurism, temptation and mystery. In New York Movie (Museum of Modern Art, New York), painted four months prior to Bridle Path, Hopper presents a gloomy, uninviting environment reflective of the anxious time. As Sheena Wagstaff writes, "A painting by Hopper presents a world over which the artist has almost total control, preconceived and ordered to create the illusion of reality. Hopper's desire was to reach a kind of plausibility, offering the minimum amount of information necessary to suggest to us that the scene in front of us is the kind of thing that could actually happen: a painterly manifestation of Goethe's 'reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me'. From the 1930s onwards, it was this intermeshing of emotional reality and narrative fiction that became increasingly important for Hopper, that saw him gradually devoting more attention to the physical nature of the essential properties of the drama itself" ("The Elation of Sunlight," in Edward Hopper, 2004, p. 21).
In Bridle Path, set beneath the Upper West Side's historic Dakota building (Fig. 3), Hopper depicts three horseback riders galloping past towering, jagged rocks, towards the Riftstone Arch (Fig. 4). The equestrian subject and focus on movement are highly unusual in Hopper's oeuvre, but the composition, imbued with a sense of mystery is pure Hopper. The Dakota is a stolid presence at the top of the canvas, but its grandeur is implied; the building itself is isolated and removed from the surroundings. The clothing of the male figure shares an eerie resemblance to Hopper's Self-Portrait (Fig. 5, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and may suggest Hopper's attempt to depict himself in the composition. As the riders approach the foreboding darkness of the tunnel, they at first seem to fearlessly race ahead into the unknown. Yet the rider of the white horse pulls at the reins, as if questioning the decision to proceed. The impending threat of war certainly weighed on Hopper in the late 1930s and the rider's anxiety could be reflective of this attitude. In 1940 Hopper wrote to his friend Guy Pène du Bois, "Painting seems to be a good enough refuge from all this, if one can get one's dispersed mind together long enough to concentrate on it" (Edward Hopper to Guy Pène du Bois, letter of August 11, 1940). While the narrative is open to multiple readings, Bridle Path stands as a powerful work, able to provoke the anxiety and apprehension that are hallmarks of Hopper's most iconic works.
Oil on canvas
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago; Detroit, Michigan, Detroit Institute of Arts; St. Louis, Missouri, City Art Museum of St. Louis, Edward Hopper: A Retrospective Exhibition, September 1964-May 1965, no. 34
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, The Artist in the Park, April-May 1980
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; London, Hayward Gallery; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Düsseldorf, Städtishce Kunsthalle; Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco, California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Edward Hopper: The Art and The Artist, September 1980-February 1982, no. 90, p. 46, illustrated pl. 254
San Francisco, California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Matisse and Beyond: The Painting and Sculpture Collection, February-September 1999
Montreal, Canada, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Alfred Hitchock, November-March 2001
San Francisco, California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Matisse and Beyond: The Painting and Sculpture Collection, June 2001-November 2002
Mexico City, Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, American Modernism from the Collections of Walker Art Center and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July-October 2008
San Francisco, California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Selected Histories: 20th Century Art from the SFMOMA Collection, July 2011-February 2012
23 3/8 by 42 1/8 inches (59.4 by 107 cm)
Lloyd Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York, 1971, illustrated p. 244
"Horseback Riders," San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle, World Section, June 5, 1977, illustrated
"The Painter's Park," American Heritage Magazine, April/May 1981, illustrated p. 92
Diana Dupont, et al., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: The Painting and Sculpture Collection, New York, 1985, p. 128, illustrated pp. 129, 316
Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1995, vol. I, p. 81, vol. III, no. O-308, p. 262, illustrated p. 263
Gail Levin, Hopper's Places, Los Angeles, California, 1998, p. 20
David Anfam, "Rothko's Hopper: A Strange Wholeness", Edward Hopper, ed. Sheena Wagstaff, London, 2004, pp. 39, 42, illustrated fig. 30
Avis Berman, Edward Hopper's New York, Petaluma, California, 2005, illustrated p. 17
Carol Troyen, et al., Edward Hopper, Boston, Massachusetts, 2007, p. 44
Walter Wells, Silent Theatre: The Art of Edward Hopper, London, 2007, pp. 45, 48, 74, 219, illustrated p. 49
Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery, New York
Collection of William E. Leistner, Brooklyn, New York, circa 1960
Gift to the present owner, 1976 (anonymous gift)