How Edward Hopper’s Teenage Cycling in Nyack Led to a Little-Known Painting
by Mike Hays
The idea for the 1937 painting, French Six-Day Bicycle Rider, came to Edward Hopper after watching bike races in Madison Square Garden. Hopper had been an avid cyclist as a teenager in his hometown, Nyack, New York. A cycling craze had hit America with the invention of the safety bike in the 1880s. Cycling and drawing were two activities that freed Hopper from the confines of village life in the 1890s.
The Edward Hopper House & Museum in Nyack displays a rusty bike with wooden tire rims once owned by Hopper. A popular, iconic pen-and-ink sketch by local Nyack artist Bill Batson captures the essence of early Hopper viewed through time. Imagine the lean boy nicknamed “the grasshopper,” already six feet at age 11, riding a bike and observing life with his newfound artist eyes. Now picture the mature artist, 40 years later, recapturing his cycling memories in a little-known painting.
Hopper Bike Drawings
Hopper drew a number of bicycling scenes during his teen years. They are each noteworthy, but two stand out: Meditation: 10 Miles from Home and Study of a Man in the Bike Shop. Meditation is a self-portrait. A tall and lean Hopper in knickers and argyle socks stands in a sculptural contraposto pose, hand on hip, staring down at his flat front tire. We assume the tire cannot be fixed; it is already off the bike. The drawing is typical Hopper: An isolated figure with restrained emotional intensity stares at the bike with anger and contempt. Study of a Man in a Bike Shop (1895-99) gives a glimpse into what could be a modern bike shop. A man with his back to us is working on bike tires. Hopper is careful to show us details of handlebars and a bike pump, the sort of subtle icons he would later include in his painting.
Six-Day Bicycle Races in New York City
Six-day indoor bicycle races were as popular as dance marathons and flagpole sitting in Hopper’s day. These bike races involved two racers who alternated riding and resting. The resting cyclist slept in a covered booth near the track. They raced on a banked wooden track that was about 1/6 of a mile. The winning team was the one that accumulated the most laps in six days. Over the six days, riders would bike up to 3,000 miles, a greater distance than the Tour de France.
Fans filled Madison Square Garden for smoke-filled matinee and evening shows. Sprint laps, elimination races, and motor-paced laps were run to excite the fans and determine winners in the case of ties. Especially popular was the Madison (named after Madison Square Garden; for a while in this century it was an Olympic event) where both riders must be on the track at the same time, taking turns, and hand-slinging each other forward.
Riders could win cash and prizes during special events. Jazz bands played, increasing their tempo to match frantic bike sprinters. Crowds screamed. Crashes were common. Showgirls and stars would show up at the races after their performances, sometimes paying for special prizes for more sprints.
A newsreel from the 1937 race shows the sleeping huts ringing the inside of the wooden track. The stands are packed. This is a sprint “Madison” race. A careful look at the beginning shows the Nazi flag above a sleeping hut.
Hopper at the Six-Day Bicycle Race
Jo, Edward Hopper’s wife, complained to her sister in a 1935 letter about how often Hopper went to the bike races at Madison Square Garden (then located on 8th Avenue, between 49th and 50th Street). She thought Hopper was wasting his time watching an event in which not much happened; he should’ve been painting. Also, she complained that he spent $0.40 on each ticket.
Hopper was intrigued by what turned out to be the last French rider to win the “Sixer,” a rider named Alfred Letourneur, also known as “le diable rouge,” or the Red Devil. Letourneur would later hold the world speed record for a cyclist, clocking in at 106 mph while drafting a car. Hopper made a number of pencil sketches of the French rider along with his standard journal sketch for the final painting in which he makes notes on coloring and style. For example: “thermos bottle on roof of hut – dark blue and Belgian canvas, Rembrandt colors.”
The French Six-Day Bicycle Rider Painting
Hopper finished the 17” x 19” painting on March 5, 1937. He later wrote about the painting in a letter to Lloyd Goodrich, whose sister bought the painting:
“I was unable to remember the name of the rider, only that he was young and dark and quite French in appearance. I did not attempt an accurate portrait, but it resembles him in a general way. He was I think a member of one of the last French teams to win a race at Madison Square Garden. He is supposed to be resting during the sprints while his team mate is on the track or at the time when `The Garden’ is full in the afternoon or evening, when both members of a team are on full alert to see that no laps are stolen from them.”
Early sketches for the painting show slightly different perspectives. His notes for the final painting state that he plans to use the perspective shown in The Night Shadow, an earlier etching that depicts a street scene from an upper window. But what interests Hopper is not the setting but the rider. In the painting, he simplifies the scene and focuses on the human figure, stressing the emotional isolation of the rider.
The painting has a number of strong diagonals that counter the static intensity of the figures. The young male assistant, whose slender form contrasts with the muscular cyclist has just drawn open the sleeping curtain. Two bikes balance the painting left and right. Hopper includes details from a biker’s kit; the biker’s helmet hangs on a peg and his water bottle rests on hut roof. A bottle, perhaps champagne for the Frenchman, sits in a tin bucket in the lower left.
Hopper makes clear that this is a French rider by including the flag and then reinforcing the red, white, and blue in the bunting and in the rider’s kit and blue-black hair.
Full Circle: From teenage cyclist to the French Six-Day Bicycle Rider painting
Cycling and art were avocations young Edward Hopper cherished. The memories of cycling as a boy stayed with him and found expression in a mature artwork nearly forty years later. The bike rider is an ironic avatar for the artist Hopper would become: an independent, isolated, watchful performer.
Nyack People & Places: Did Edward Hopper Ride a Nyack Bike?
Nyack People & Places: 19th Century Cycling
Street Beat: New Yorkers and Their Bicycles, 1869 Editon
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.