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Edward Hopper, American, 1882 - 1967
- When we reached [Hopper's Truro] house, there was Hopper sitting in front of it, looking out over the hills. We found Jo sitting in the back, looking over the bay. "That's what we do all the time," she said sharply. "He sits in his spot and looks at the hills all day, and I look at the sea."1 For an artist as definite and directed as Edward Hopper (1882 - 1967), it is no surprise that watercolor played a specific role in his work and was used during a well-defined period in his career.2 He began making watercolors in 1923, when he had just abandoned etching; by 1938 he gradually made fewer and fewer of them because he was no longer working spontaneously in the outdoors, instead doing nearly all of his work in the studio.3 Watercolor had been the medium with which he composed directly on the spot, and so it no longer served a purpose. A man of few words, Hopper knew what he wanted and why. When he came on a new site or used a new medium that excited him, as he did when he started working with watercolors in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he produced a phenomenal amount of work all at once. At other times, when he could not find a place that seemed right--a house or a view, or even a part of the country--he would go for periods of time without working, occasionally traveling to a new area, such as Charleston or Santa Fe, to seek inspiration.4 Nonetheless, throughout his career, Hopper and his wife, Jo (also an artist), occupied the same modest flat on Manhattan's Washington Square. In the summers they sought the New England coast, from Maine south to Cape Cod; when the specific qualities of the light of a place ceased to hold his attention, they moved elsewhere. By 1928 Gloucester no longer inspired him; he tried Maine, but found the contrasts of light and shadow too sharp; finally, in the summer of 1930, the Hoppers settled in Truro on Cape Cod, where the blond light, pale shadows, and treeless dunes captured and held his interest for the rest of his life. Hopper's output during his first summer in Truro in 1930 rivaled that of 1923, the first year of making watercolors, when he made more than two dozen views of Gloucester; in his excitement with the new site he produced about twenty new Cape Cod scenes. The character of the work was new as well. In Gloucester he had reveled in the intricacies of light and shadow on shuttered Victorian captains' houses,5 but now the revelation of the unadorned faces of boxlike Cape Cod barns and dwellings appealed to his increasing inclination toward modernist simplicity.6 Yellow sand splashed with green grass and violet shadows predominate in the watercolors of his early Cape Cod summers; skies are often a cloudless blue, as in the watercolor Corn Hill, one of the many created during that prolific moment. The high dune topped by a row of identical houses was a striking spot as well as a historic landmark, named Corn Hill in 1620 by Captain Miles Standish and his Mayflower crew because it was there that they found ears of corn strewn over recent Indian graves.7 Hopper made not only a watercolor but also a painting of Corn Hill,8 each from a different viewpoint and at a different time of day. In both, he stood looking up at the houses and the towering dune whose upper reaches covered parts of their facades. In the painting the houses recede sharply away, while in the watercolor four houses march in a row along the dune's crest. He made the painting in late afternoon as the sun began to set, with golden light falling on the western side of the dune facing Cape Cod Bay; the watercolor, by contrast, was done in full daylight, when the sun bleached the greens and yellows of the dune and the houses loomed darkly against the cloudless sky. Corn Hill was executed in Hopper's typical method of roughly sketching the composition in pencil before adding color.9 Working on a stiff, moderately textured watercolor paper, he used pencil to provide only the most general guidelines, primarily indicating the position of the houses, the slope of the dune, and the pathway. Clearly, these were not outlines to be filled in with color, for he brushed over them freely, sometimes leaving them exposed. Color is applied thinly in some areas and allowed to pool in others, overlaid in places with swift, broken touches of green. Hopper seems to have painted the sky last, as he often did with his watercolors, letting his brush skip over uneven areas of the paper surface to expose tiny areas of the white ground. He left a broad strip of the paper along the bottom untouched, suggesting the white-hot sun on the sandy beach where he was working.10 Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams II Collection (2009), pp. 173-175. 1. Raphael Soyer, quoted in Lloyd Goodrich, "Six Who Knew Edward Hopper," Art Journal, vol. 41, no. 2 (Summer 1981), p. 132.
2. The principal recent sources for Hopper's watercolors are Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2, Watercolors (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, in association with W. W. Norton & Company, 1995); Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Edward Hopper: The Watercolors, exh. cat. (Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, in association with W. W. Norton & Company, 1999); and Gail Levin, The Complete Watercolors of Edward Hopper (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, in association with W. W. Norton & Company, 2001).
3. Hopper's watercolors brought him his first success. Following his summer in Gloucester in 1923, he showed some of them at the Brooklyn Museum, which acquired The Mansard Roof (reproduced in Levin, The Complete Watercolors, p. 42, no. W-72). In 1924 his exhibition of watercolors at the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries in New York sold out, and he received unanimous praise from the press. See Mecklenburg, Edward Hopper, pp. 27-37. On Hopper's lessening of interest in watercolor about 1938, see pp. 6-7.
4. Several periods when Hopper was unable to work or would not paint unless a site inspired him are recounted in Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pp. 262, 292, 297-98, 316-17.
5. See Carol Troyen, "Hopper in Gloucester," in Troyen et al., Edward Hopper, exh. cat. (Boston: MFA Publications, 2007), pp. 57-83.
6. See Ellen E. Roberts, "Painting the Modern Cape: Hopper in Truro," in ibid., pp. 145-55.
7. Mecklenburg, Edward Hopper, pp. 103-4, 171 n. 19.
8. The painting is in the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, and reproduced in Modern Art at the McNay: A Brief History and Pictorial Survey of the Collection (San Antonio: McNay, 2001), p. 168.
9. Hopper's watercolor technique is discussed by Mecklenburg, Edward Hopper, pp. 5-6; and Troyen, "Hopper in Gloucester," p. 59.
10. Even when compared with some of Hopper's watercolors of pure dunes, Corn Hill is one of the most generalized of those he made in Truro about 1930. In most of them he used smaller, more controlled brushstrokes, creating more defined patches of grass and sand. See Levin, The Complete Watercolors, nos. W-256, W-258, W-259. Although clearly a finished work, Corn Hill more closely resembles the broader application of pale color in three of Hopper's contemporaneous unfinished watercolors: nos. W-254, W-257, W-260.