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Edward Hopper (1882–1967) made ‘powerful images of nostalgia and alienation that expose the anxiety of modern life’ as the book jacket of this catalogue so neatly summarizes. We easily recall the artist’s scenes of gas stations or diners near closing time, with solitary, lonely people strangely stiffened by a kind of melancholia. In one of his best-known works, Nighthawks (1942), the harshly lighted interior contrasts with the dark city street outside. These Hopper paintings are now familiar to us as contemporary icons of American life. They are seen in museum shops everywhere, on wall calendars, notecards and as jigsaw puzzles of the not-too-difficult, but still arty kind. But there is more to Hopper’s art than these rather arid works suggest and the exhibition, ‘Edward Hopper’s Maine’, held at Bowdoin College Museum of Art earlier this year,and its catalogue, demonstrated a more vigorous and spontaneous side to his art.
More than half the works exhibited came from the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Without Hopper’s Monhegan oils and many of the watercolours we might have forever considered Hopper as simply a painter of typical American scenes infused with a sense of melancholy. His watercolours, so rarely shown, prove him to be a master of this most difficult medium and the oil sketches indicate the unlocking of a formidable colourist. The catalogue is particularly ambitious in its illustrations; it is the many close-up views of Hopper’s paint handling and colour washes which prove Hopper to be a hitherto underrated artist.
Hopper created these works during summers between 1914 and 1929 in the coastal communities of ‘Downeast’ Maine. After some difficult years in New York when he was making a living as an illustrator and struggling to make headway with his painting, Hopper visited Ogunquit, on the coast of Maine not far from Boston. Two art schools flourished there and painters produced beach scenes and picturesque buildings in a vaguely Impressionist style. Ever so slowly Hopper’s own work became more adventurous. His compositions were still unremarkable, but he began to concentrate on certain aspects of the landscape, light and shadow (particularly on rocks), which he painted thickly and confidently, while carefully developing his palette of ochres and browns and blues.
Over the next four summers that Hopper produced the rocky landscapes that, as it turns out, show his true strengths with colour and brushwork. At the suggestion of a fellow artist he went to Monhegan, an island lying about ten miles off the coast with a variety of appealing subjects to paint – huge, dark cliffs, forests of tall fir trees, rocky beaches, ramshackle village buildings, and a lighthouse and cemetery on the highest part of the island.
It appears that Hopper was following in the footsteps of an earlier painter, George Bellows (1882–1925), who had spent his time at Monhegan experimenting with colour theories and painting powerful seascapes. It was Bellows who first wrote ecstatically about Monhegan, ‘the island’ he said:
is only a mile wide & two miles long but it looks as large as the Rocky Mountains. Its [sic] …all black & grey rock Beautiful pine forests and wonderful varieties of all kinds…Every part of the island is easy to reach. Its [sic] all rock and rough walking some places.
Hopper knew Bellows’ work and was driven partly by a competitive desire to rival his success and partly by the inviting landscape. He tramped across the island, working on small, portable panels, easily carried. Although small in size (usually only 9 x 12 inches ) the 32 paintings are strongly painted. Hopper investigated the jagged/smooth relationships of rock formations, the dense, sharp shadows of crevices and cavities and the rich colours of the stone seen in sunlight. The work is exciting in its use of sudden gashes of crimson and ochre against cerulean seas, but for all their colouristic bravado the paintings remain studies or sketches, and lack resolution or any narrative aim. Critics nevertheless admired them, calling them ‘strong’, ‘truthful’ and ‘good in colour’.
By the 1920s Hopper had good success, too, with his watercolours, which were compared to those by John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer. One critic even remarked that Hopper matched Sargent in ‘brilliance’ and further, that his art was more substantial than Sargent’s having ‘a force of mind rather than of [just the] hand’.
With watercolour Hopper’s subject matter widened, his technical ability with the medium gave him a new boldness. Studies of rocks in sharp light and shadow carry on from the Monhegan oil studies while watercolours of trawlers with rusty hulls, chains and ropes show that his compositions and colour washes rivalled the most accomplished works by Winslow Homer. When he was ashore Hopper concentrated on town streets, collections of buildings and lighthouses and, in one case, a lime quarry. These are very competent paintings with buildings seen in a strong, clear light casting sharp shadows. Like the urban paintings done before the summer landscapes in Maine, they have few figures. We are again reminded of Hopper’s urban oil paintings with their ever-present feeling of absence and emptiness.
Only one work in the exhibition, called Maine in Fog, shows Hopper’s attempt to capture the atmosphere of a foggy day, a frequent occurrence which happens in all seasons of the year, giving the coastal region its special character. The catalogue contains a complete essay on this single painting of a fishing boat drawn up on dunes as if abandoned and derelict. Houses dissolve in the fog in the distance and foreground details are indistinct and bathed in monochromatic whites and greys. One has to wonder whether Hopper generally preferred clear, sunlit days to the challenges of murky weather of fog and mist that are more distinctive in coastal areas. In the exhibition the painting was accompanied by a preparatory drawing in charcoal, precisely drawn, suggesting that the artist intended it for a different composition or perhaps a different use altogether.
Edward Hopper’s Maine by Kevin Salatino with essays by Carter E. Foster, Vincent Katz, Steve Martin, Carol Troyen and Diana Tuite is published by Prestel Publishing, London, 2011. 176 pp., fully illustrated in colour. ISBN 978 3 7913 5128 5