For Americans, Edward Hopper is a classic. The French have only discovered him in dribs and drabs.
It wasn’t until 1989, 22 years after the painter’s death, that the Musee Cantini in Marseille presented a selection from his mature work, the first solo show of a U.S. pre-war artist by a French museum.
In 2004, the Museum of American Art in Giverny devoted an exhibition to Hopper’s views of Paris.
The new show at Paris’s Grand Palais is the first retrospective in France spanning his entire career.
It not only brings together many of his best known canvases; it also includes watercolors, etchings and commercial illustrations -- the hack work he had to do to make a living when nobody wanted to buy his pictures.
His late discovery by the French is all the more surprising because Hopper made no secret that his work was influenced by his time in Paris -- nine months in 1906, and shorter stays in 1909 and 1910.
Although he didn’t enroll in any school and was too shy to meet members of the avant-garde, he attentively studied the French art scene, visiting museums and galleries.
Edgar Degas inspired him to explore unusual angles. Fauvist painter Albert Marquet’s cityscapes impressed him with their vigorous simplicity. He admired Felix Vallotton’s woodcuts and paintings for their dramatic contrast of light and shadow.
He also discovered the photographs of Eugene Atget, whose views of empty streets exude a surreal charm.
The first part of the exhibition covers Hopper’s early years while he was still trying to find his personal style. His canvases are juxtaposed with others from the so-called Ashcan School -- scenes of urban life by his teacher Robert Henri, George Bellows and John Sloan.
The second part starts in 1924, the turning point of his career. The success of a show of watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum finally enabled him to devote his life full time to his art.
Here you find the melancholy icons that are inextricably linked with Hopper’s name -- lonely people in barren rooms, brooding in coffee shops or seedy theaters.
When two characters appear, they seem to live in different worlds: The conversation has stopped; both are lost in their own thoughts.
On Hopper’s most famous canvas, “Nighthawks” (1942), three people sit like zombies at the counter of an all-night diner. The eerie scene could come straight from a film noir, a genre that flourished in those years.
Hopper could get quite angry when people lumped him together with Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and other painters of small-town America.
Nor was he happy about being labeled as the painter of solitude and alienation. “The loneliness thing is overdone,” he told the Irish art critic Brian O’Doherty in 1964.
In fact, the exhibition at the Grand Palais demonstrates that Hopper has more to offer than deserted streets, taciturn couples and alienated loners. It also demonstrates that, technically, he was a better draftsman than painter.
Clement Greenberg, one of America’s most influential critics, had a point when he called Hopper “a bad painter.” Yet he added: “If he were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist.”
The exhibition, which is supported by the Group Credit du Nord, runs through Jan. 28, 2013.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market and John Mariani on wine.