Published: August 31, 2004
Edward Hopper, a poet of human isolation with a paint brush, is best known as the artist who romanticized the unpicturesque loneliness of Twentieth Century American city and country life. His images, many of which have become icons of our art, are deeply ingrained in the national psyche and culture. He is a titan of American art.
Starting in 1912, Hopper (1882-1967) spent nearly every summer of his long career in New England. He recorded picturesque coastal views, distinctive architectures, ships and ports and topographical subjects that appealed to him. If his later works captured a national mood of angst and isolation, his early New England images evoked a nostalgia for a simpler past and respect for the solidity of the coastline and its residents.
Some of Hopper’s most important work between 1914 and 1929 was created in Maine. His travels in the Pine Tree State included stays in Ogunquit, Monhegan Island, Rockland and Portland. “Maine,” he once said, “is so beautiful and the weather is so fine in the summer – that’s why I come up here to rest and paint a little, too.” After years of laboring as a commercial illustrator in New York City, Hopper’s Maine paintings and watercolors helped propel him toward success as a full-time, professional artist.
One of his most productive summers – 1926 – was spent in midcoast Rockland. Marking the city’s sesquicentennial, the Farnsworth Art Museum has mounted an appealing and interesting exhibition, “Edward Hopper’s Rockland,” on view through September 26. Astutely curated by Suzette Lane McAvoy, the show features 14 of the 20 watercolors the artist executed during a seven-week visit to this aging commercial and fishing community. Adding interest to the splendid artwork are photographs of sites – then and now – that Hopper depicted.
The summer of 1926 was, in some ways, a breakout period for the 44-year-old Hopper, who had begun to find his voice and was able to devote all his time to producing art. Born in Nyack, N.Y., he lived in a handsome white house that offered views of the Hudson River. Water and boats became a lifelong interest and frequent subjects of his work. His home, now the Edward Hopper House Art Center, is maintained as a community cultural center and place to showcase memorabilia, reproductions and exhibitions of his art.
After graduating from high school, Hopper studied at the New York Art School under William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Fellow students included George Bellows, Guy Péne du Bois, Rockwell Kent and Carl Sprinchorn. A star pupil, Hopper was dubbed by his classmates the “John Singer Sargent of the class” for his “obviously brilliant drawing,” Kent later recalled.
After three sojourns in Paris, where he was influenced by the realism of Gustave Courbet and the colorful, light-filled images of the Impressionists, Hopper returned to New York. He was forced to take up illustrating as a means to earn a living. Although he detested this commercial work, he had to stick with it for some 15 years.
In his spare time he experimented with styles and subjects and became an accomplished etcher. Hopper participated, with scant success, in small group shows in Manhattan. He was in his early 30s before he sold his first painting. It was not until Hopper was 42 that a sold-out exhibition of his watercolors gave him the confidence to stop working as an illustrator and devote himself entirely to creating fine art.
Standing six-feet-five, with heavy lips and a brooding expression, Hopper had a shy, reticent personality that was reflected in his art. He received considerable inspiration and help from his petite, talkative wife and fellow artist, Josephine (Jo) Nivison. They met while studying in New York, met again in New England, and married when he was 41.
Childless, the Hoppers divided their time between an apartment/studio at 3 Washington Square North (now owned by New York University) in Greenwich Village, where he had lived since 1913, and, after many peripatetic summers, in a cottage they built in South Truro, Mass., on Cape Cod.
Hopper first came to Maine in 1914, when he spent the first of two summers in Ogunquit, a quiet coastal community already crawling with artists. There he painted mostly barren rocks, dramatic coves, vernacular architecture and a lonely, deserted road.
Four summers on Monhegan Island, 1916-1919, led to an impressive series recording the rocky topography and rolling sea and the venerable lighthouse complex. The latter view was utilized in recent years to reconstruct the assistant keeper’s house for use as a gallery by the Monhegan Museum, which occupies the keeper’s house.
Continuing the museum’s recent tradition of organizing outstanding art exhibitions, this summer’s offering, “Side by Side on Monhegan: The Henri Circle and American Impressionists,” is of unusual interest. It is on view through September 30.
During the summers of 1923-24 in Gloucester, Mass., at his wife’s urging Hopper experimented further with watercolors. Working outdoors, he created deft watercolors of the port city’s angular architecture, streetscapes and fishing vessels that reflected his increasing mastery of the medium. Many images showed his interest in the play of light and shadow on forms, and his skill at cropping pictures for dramatic effect.
His highly successful gallery exhibition of watercolors in 1924 brought the artist both financial and critical success. As Virginia M. Mecklenburg, who organized a beautiful Hopper watercolor show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1999, observed, “Attention created by the watercolor series placed Hopper squarely in the front ranks of the nation’s artists, where he would remain until his death in 1967.”
The next year, 1925, Hopper announced his arrival at artistic maturity with the iconic “House by the Railroad,” an oil painting showing a mansard-roofed Victorian house standing all by itself next to railroad tracks. Like many Hopper images to follow, this masterwork conveys both a sense of isolation and harks back to happier, less complicated days of yore. Now owned by the Museum of Modern Art, “House by the Railroad” was Alfred Hitchcock’s model for the Bates house in his 1960 film Psycho.
At this fortuitous junction in his career, in the summer of 1926, Hopper and his wife set out again to explore New England. They took the train from New York to Eastport, Maine, but found that town disappointed and moved further south down the coast. As Hopper explained in a letter from Rockland in early July, “We did not like Eastport at all. It has very little of the character of a New England town. We left after three days and went to Bangor by rail and then by boat to this town, a very fine old place with lots of good looking houses but not much shipping. I don’t know how long we will stay here…I’ve made two sketches here within two days which is not bad.”
Hopper’s 20 Rockland works are, says Mecklenburg, “some of his most memorable watercolors.” Of the 14 watercolors in the current exhibition, five are owned by the Farnsworth. Most measure about 14 by 20 inches.
It appears that the Hoppers stayed at the “lodginghouse” operated by Mrs Asenath H. Achorn at 17 Lindsey Street. This unpretentious wooden house, located a few blocks from the Farnsworth, is extant, as is the interior room depicted in “Mrs Acorn’s Parlor.” This warm rendering of the front room, replete with an organ, table, chair, lamp, patterned rug and other Victorian objects, harked back “to bygone eras amid the present, [which] is the hallmark of Hopper’s work,” observes curator McAvoy in the exhibition brochure. Alas, this memorable watercolor, owned by the Museum of Modern Art, was not available for the show.
A less pretentious, but nonetheless memorable subject was “Haunted House,” which Hopper described as “an old boarded-up boarding house near the shipyard.” The gray, weather-beaten Atlantic House has disappeared from 5 South Street, but a nearly identical abode stands nearby. This subject, Hopper authority Gail Levin has said, shows Hopper “favoring images evocative of bygone epochs and lost values,…which serves as a metaphor for the role that the past came to play in his present.”
Although he complained that Rockland did not have “much shipping,” Hopper was inevitably drawn to the waterfront, then as now an active harbor alive with smaller vessels. His “Rockland Harbor, Maine,” loaned by the Wadsworth Atheneum, offers a view of several large buildings backing onto the harbor that are little changed today.
Always intrigued by symbols of the past and present, Hopper was interested in the fact that traditional wooden sailing schooners were being replaced with net-dragging, steam-driven trawlers with potential for prodigious catches of fish. Accordingly, he painted the two types of ships as symbols of yesterday and today.
He recorded the sharp angles, rounded forms and jumbled contents of Rockland’s schooners and beam trawlers with great attention to detail. As Maine art historian and Hopper expert Carl Little has observed, “Hopper painted capstans, pulleys and smokestacks with as much care as he did cornices, gables and chimneys.”
“Schooner’s Bowspirt” offers a bird’s-eye view of part of a derelict, beached vessel. “Schooner’s Hull,” recently given to the Farnsworth, appears to have been painted from the deck of a boat. In it Hopper juxtaposed an abandoned schooner against the backs of buildings on Main Street.
Interestingly, years later, Andrew Wyeth, unaware of the earlier picture, depicted virtually the same scene from about the same vantage point. His watercolor is on view in the museum’s library. Wyeth and Hopper admired each other’s work.
Beam trawlers, named after birds such as osprey, teal and widgeon, were much in evidence in Rockland harbor in 1926. In depicting these vessels, which he described as “lumpy fishing boats equipped with gigantic nets for ground fishing,” Hopper emphasized their rusted solidity and variety of well-worn equipment.
These images suggested the stalwart nature of the fishermen who manned them. “[T]he paintings of beam trawlers,” says McAvoy, “are ‘surrogates’ for the lives of the fishermen who lived and worked on the vessels.” The accuracy of Hopper’s renderings are attested to in the exhibition by vintage photographs of the trawlers Teale and Widgeon.
Two examples in the current show, from the collections of the Farnsworth and the Princeton University Art Museum, document Hopper’s gift for turning the prosaic into a work of art with a message. He continued to depict aspects of railroading for the remainder of his career.
From the Eighteenth Century until the last Rockland kiln closed in 1958, the limestone industry was an important element in the local economy. Hopper was attracted to a series of lime rock quarries that remain visible today on the city’s outskirts. “Lime Quarry No. 1” and “[Rocks]” capture the dramatic topography, varied colors and play of light on these sites.
Hopper’s interest in the Civil War first surfaced artistically in “Civil War Campground,” showing a still open field on Tillson’s Hill where Maine volunteers assembled before marching off to fight for the Union. Utility poles and wires, houses peeping over the brown of the hill and mountains in the distance suggest, in Mecklenburg’s words, “the adjacency of the past and present. In this remarkable watercolor, Hopper explored junctures of time as well as space.”
Today, a stone tablet across upper Talbot Avenue from the bivouac site memorializes the military units and lists the numerous battles in which they fought.
After another sojourn in Gloucester, and several important stays in Portland, where Hopper painted everything from the old Custom House to picturesque lighthouses, Hopper and his wife settled for good on Cape Cod in the early 1930s. There he depicted the undulating landscape, old houses, a lonely gas station and nautical scenes.
In the meantime, his later urban work sought to capture the loneliness and isolation of life in midcentury America. Single figures in cheap hotel rooms, people working at night in offices, a pensive usher in a theater and an empty main street on Sunday morning were among the themes he explored.
Perhaps his most famous work, “Nighthawks,” 1942, shows a counterman and three customers in an all-night cafe, with vacant stools, blank windows a deserted street echoing the empty faces of these lonely people whose lives touch briefly and accidentally. This iconic painting sums up the personal alienation that Hopper divined is so much a part of modern, highly organized city life.
Toward the end, Hopper was showered with honors and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. By the time of his death, Hopper had achieved, after a slow start, unparalleled recognition and popularity. Clearly, his interpretations of the American scene struck – and continue to strike – a responsible chord with the public and critics alike.
Hopper’s visits to Maine, spanning a decade and a half, contributed significantly to putting him on the map. This summer’s rewarding exhibition at the Farnsworth, featuring 1926 work that helped launch the artist to lasting fame and fortune, constitutes a fitting celebration of Rockland’s sesquicentennial.
An added bonus is that visitors can walk around the midcoast community and still see places Hopper depicted. “Rockland can be proud of its role in…[Hopper’s] continuing legacy,” McAvoy concludes.
The Farnsworth Art Museum is on Main Street (Route 1) at Museum Street. For information, 207-596-6457 or www.farnsworthmuseum.org.
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