Art Market

Why Edward Hopper’s “Chop Suey” Could Break the $100 Million Mark

Benjamin Sutton
Nov 9, 2018 8:30PM

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Edward Hopper’s oil paintings are prized trophies among collectors and art institutions. Of the 366 documented in his catalogue raisonné, many are in museum collections, and the rest rarely appear on the market. But next week, two exceptional Hopper oil paintings will hit the auction block. One has been described as his most iconic work still in private hands, and is poised to smash his auction record; the other is the last painting he finished before his death in 1967, and a startling farewell.

In the last five years, only two other oil paintings by Hopper have sold at auction; a third, Two Puritans (1945), failed to find a buyer when it came to auction at Christie’s in 2015 with a $20–$30 million estimate. Earlier this year, a rare landscape painting devoid of any figures or buildings, Cape Ann Granite (1928), fetched $8.4 million at a Christie’s sale of American works from the Rockefeller collection. Hopper’s current auction record was set in December 2013, when his street scene East Wind Over Weehawken (1934), which had been deaccessioned by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, sold at Christie’s for $40.5 million.

That record could be more than doubled on November 13th, when Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929) headlines Christie’s evening sale of works from the estate of collector and tourism mogul Barney A. Ebsworth, who died in April. Christie’s has estimated that the work will go for a figure between $70 million and $100 million. A colorful scene set in a restaurant—based in part on one near Columbus Circle in Manhattan, where Hopper and his future wife, Josephine (a.k.a. Jo), often ate while they were dating—it is full of strong lines and bursts of color. Chop Suey was last seen in the blockbuster Hopper exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais, which drew crowds of 7,270 visitors per day during its 2012–13 run and became the museum’s second-most-visited exhibition ever, cementing the quintessentially American painter’s international appeal.

“We took into account the internationalization of interest in Hopper” as a major factor behind the significant estimate for Chop Suey, said Eric Widing, Christie’s deputy chairman, citing the Grand Palais show as a turning point for Hopper’s market. “We have collectors with the means in the American field to buy this work, and there is interest there. We do also have some international collectors who do buy masterpieces across categories, and they’re definitely interested, as well.”

Indeed, almost from the moment Ebsworth acquired it, other collectors expressed interest in Chop Suey.

“Practically as long as he’d had this painting, since he bought it in 1973 from William Zierler, he’s been getting big offers,” Widing said. “The offers he’s gotten for it over the years have consistently been way above the current retail value for the time.” He added that Ebsworth had been offered $80 million for it “in more recent years,” while the late collector mentions being offered $60 million for the painting in the 1990s in his memoir.

Part of Chop Suey’s appeal is, quite simply, that it depicts human figures. The cinematic composition features two women in hats sitting in the foreground (both were modeled on Hopper’s wife, Jo), and a couple in the distance, including another woman modeled on Jo, whose face is barely visible at the edge of the composition.

“All of the other figural oils from this period are in museums,” Widing said, adding that prices for them have historically far outpaced the artist’s other works. (In 2007, Ebsworth had actually promised to gift Chop Suey to the Seattle Art Museum, but after his death, his family opted to consign it to Christie’s.)

Edward Hopper, Two Comedians, 1966. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


“The figural works tend to be often double the price of equivalent non-figural works from similar periods,” he said.

Scholars have framed Chop Suey as a prescient painting that, while emblematic of pre-war American modernism, also anticipated post-war movements. Some have suggested that Hopper’s incorporation of the “chop suey” signage outside the window anticipated the advent of Pop art several decades later. Others have likened the painting’s strong geometry and contrasting colors as a kind of prototypical Abstract Expressionism.

“This very painting was cited specifically by Mark Rothko as a very important influence on him early on in his understanding of color and light,” Widing noted.

Three days after Chop Suey goes under the hammer, Sotheby’s will offer a startling oil painting Hopper made 37 years later, the year before his death, very consciously as his farewell canvas. Two Comedians (1966), which is expected to fetch between $12 million and $18 million at Sotheby’s afternoon sale of American art on November 16th, features two figures in pierrot costumes standing on a stage, preparing to bow. The male figure is a self-portrait, while the female figure was once again modeled after Hopper’s beloved wife and muse. They stand before an expansive, portentous black void, with a wall of bright-green stage shrubbery to the right of the composition. While characteristically enigmatic, it is also exceptionally personal and heartfelt for a Hopper.

“It is his final painting, and the culmination of a number of themes that he was exploring throughout his oeuvre,” said Liz Sterling, the senior vice president and senior specialist in the Impressionist and modern art department at Sotheby’s. “Jo was an artist, as well, but was always overshadowed by Hopper. However, she was his muse and model and the protagonist of so many of his works, so here, he’s kind of acknowledging her.”

The painting, which once belonged to Frank Sinatra, was also featured in the Grand Palais exhibition, a show that Sterling, like her colleague at Christie’s, credited for significantly expanding the market for Hopper’s work.

“Following that [exhibition], we did see this huge uptick in interest in his work among an international audience,” she said. “It’s a testament to how scholarship and the market go hand in hand when it’s a truly exemplary show.” She added that ahead of next week’s sale, collectors from Asia, Europe, and the U.S. have all expressed interest in Two Comedians.

Hopper’s final painting, like many of his mature works, verges on Surrealism, whereas his earlier paintings, like Chop Suey and his most iconic work, Nighthawks (1942), retain a distinctly American flavor that nevertheless speaks to audiences—and collectors—across the globe.

“The obvious question is: Why, what is it about Hopper?” Widing asked, reflecting on “that magnetic quality that he has, or what I sometimes call that deeper layer, which Hopper has underneath his works, which draw you back again and again to try to understand his works better.”

The uncanny blend of Americanness and universal, global themes that makes Hopper’s paintings so potent has perhaps never been better articulated than by his contemporary Charles Ephraim Burchfield, writing in the catalogue for Hopper’s 1933 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

“Edward Hopper is an American—nowhere but in America could such an art have come into being,” Burchfield wrote. “But its underlying classical nature prevents its being merely local or national in its appeal. It is my conviction, anyhow, that the bridge to international appreciation is the national bias, providing, of course, it is subconscious.”

Benjamin Sutton