Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Edward Hopper: The Watercolors

The first major exhibition in forty years of the watercolors of Edward Hopper (1882–1967) premiered at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on October 22, 1999. The exhibition, co-organized with the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, features fifty-six watercolors made between 1923 and the mid-1940s, ranging from early scenes of Gloucester and Cape Cod to works painted on trips to Mexico and Charleston. The watercolors are the body of work that brought Hopper, then in his forties, his first critical and financial success.

The product of several years' research by Virginia M. Mecklenburg (senior curator at the Museum of American Art) and Margaret Lynne Ausfeld (curator at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts), "Edward Hopper: The Watercolors" brought together rarely seen masterworks from fifteen private lenders and eighteen museums.

The watercolors present an approach very different from that of Hopper's oils and their carefully composed urban scenes heavy with alienation and rigid geometry.

"We are delighted to present these wonderful watercolors by one of America's most revered artists," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Museum of American Art. "These paintings reveal a more spontaneous Hopper who was moved by the thematic possibilities of simple houses and expansive skies."

Born in 1882 in Nyack, N.Y., Hopper first became known for his etchings. He had painted since his student days at the Chase School, where he was a classmate of George Bellows, Guy Pène du Bois, and Rockwell Kent, but his artwork brought him little attention and for a number of years he made his living as an illustrator, a career he found unsatisfying and frustrating.

While vacationing in Gloucester, Mass., during the summer of 1923 he began working in watercolors at the suggestion of Jo Nivison, an artist who became his wife the following year. Away from New York and working outdoors in a medium that demanded quick choices, Hopper was at his freest. He drew from visually complicated subjects—lighthouses along the shore, gabled and dormered Victorian houses—to create images specific to real locations, a direct contrast to the invented settings of the etchings and paintings of his urban artworks.

The watercolors, composed only by Hopper's choice of vantage point, capture subtle and ephemeral shifts in the light and air of a particular moment and place. In them he examines crisp New England landscapes, the dramatic perspectives and intense sunlight of Mexico, and haunting vestiges of the Civil War in Charleston. Hopper repeatedly turned to lighthouses and Victorian architecture as symbols of the past. By setting these subjects adjacent to utility poles, railroad tracks, or other references to progress, he elicited a dialogue between past and present and alluded to change as a fundamental characteristic of American life.

The watercolors from the summers of 1923 and 1924 catapulted Hopper to fame. The Brooklyn Museum purchased "The Mansard Roof" after including it in their 1923 watercolor show, and all sixteen paintings in a 1924 exhibition at Frank K. M. Rehn's New York gallery sold. In "The Mansard Roof" (1923), a sun-washed pile of a house, fluid forms of foliage and shadows dance to the same breeze that billows the yellow awnings. "He captured the temperature of the air, a breath of wind, the rustling of dry grasses—an aura of timelessness very different from the psychic urgency so often found in his urban scenes," said curator Mecklenburg.

In "Funnel of Trawler" (1924) the interplay of light and shadow combines with unusual cropping to create a sense of immediacy.

Hopper visited Cape Cod for the first time in 1930 and he and Jo returned each summer to paint, building a modest house there in 1934. While the watercolors produced during the 1930s are less spontaneous, they exhibit a greater sense of compositional finesse and take on a more modernist edge. "Roofs of the Cobb Barn" (1931) emphasizes the clean geometric forms and white planes of the barn roof.

In his later watercolors Hopper engaged the textured surface of the paper through drybrushing and relied less on washes. "Cottages at North Truro" (1938) illustrates this "toothier" approach. It also unites two important Hopper themes, vernacular architecture and railroad references, in a complex and dramatic landscape.

By the late 1930s his work was becoming more restrained in both style and method. Hopper had exhausted the Cape Cod area for imagery, and he and Jo began traveling elsewhere for subject matter. Several of the late watercolors were painted in Mexico; Monterrey and the Spanish colonial town of Saltillo provided inspiration for

"Monterrey Cathedral,"

"Saltillo Mansion"

and "Saltillo Rooftops,
" works from the summer of 1943.

Edward Hopper's regular forays in watercolor ended with a trip West and into Mexico in 1946. Asked in 1960 if he gave up watercolor out of a preference for working slowly, he replied, "I don't think that's the reason I do fewer watercolors. I think it's because the watercolors are done from nature and I don't work from nature anymore."

Following its Washington debut, "Edward Hopper: The Watercolors" was shown January 30 through March 26, 2000, at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Ala., the final venue for the exhibition.