Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Edward Hopper in Vermont

On May 23 the Middlebury College Museum of Art opened Edward Hopper in Vermont, a rare and stunning exhibit of watercolors and drawings of Vermont subjects by the iconic American painter. In the more than 75 years since their creation, the majority of Hopper’s Vermont works have been shrouded in obscurity, and some have not been on view to the public in nearly fifty years. This exhibition, assembled from museums and private collections throughout the United States, reunites Hopper’s Vermont works and displays them together, in Vermont, for the first time. Arranged sequentially, without the interruptions of works painted elsewhere during the intervening years, these works illuminate Hopper’s process in translating into paint and paper his singular vision of the Vermont landscape.

Edward Hopper, Vermont Sugar House, 1938, watercolor on paper, 14 × 20 inches. Collection of Louis Bacon.

Edward Hopper, often characterized as the quintessential New York artist, traveled away from the city every summer, leaving behind the heat and concrete sidewalks in favor of more pleasant climes and fresh subjects to paint outdoors. His first sojourns were to Paris, the obligatory destination for American artists through the early years of the 20th century. After 1910, however, he—along with his wife Jo (Josephine Verstille Nivison), a fellow artist who was also his model, muse, record-keeper, and lifelong traveling companion—traveled primarily in New England, with occasional trips to Mexico and the western United States. In all of his travels, Hopper was searching for “beautiful things” and new places that would inspire him to paint. It was this quest that led him to Vermont. Indeed, despite the beauty of some of their other regular vacation spots, including a small house and studio the couple built on Cape Cod, Hopper periodically sought inspiration in Vermont when he found himself unable to discover it elsewhere.

Edward Hopper, Barn and Silo, Vermont, 1927, watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper, 13 7/8 x 19 7/8 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Lesley and Emma Sheafer Collection, Bequest of Emma A. Sheafer, 1973.

In 1927 Edward and Jo purchased their first car and, with its trunk packed with brushes and paints, palettes and easels, and paper for watercolors—a veritable traveling studio—began to explore Vermont. During five summer excursions to the state between 1927 and 1938, Hopper recorded more than two dozen drawings and watercolors of rural scenes.

Edward Hopper, Bob Slater’s Hill, 1938, watercolor on paper, 13 1/4 x 19 1/2 inches. Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, West Virginia. Gift of Ruth Woods Dayton, 1967.1.132

Hopper’s early Vermont paintings tend to include immediately recognizable architecture and scenery, the more vernacular views with barns and farm buildings rendered in bright light and color. Over the course of his subsequent visits to the state, however, his work evolved toward more momentary scenes finally culminating in a formalized series of works along the White River.

Edward Hopper, Windy Day, 1938, watercolor on paper. Collection of William S. Beinecke

Returning to Vermont in the late summer of 1935—following a seven year hiatus likely spurred by the widespread destruction resulting from the disastrous 1927 flood—and again in 1936, the Hoppers continued their regular practice of sketching and painting from their car. This allowed them to move around easily in search of views in which the landscape was desirably framed. By now Edward had eschewed much of the usual fare of Vermont artists—the covered bridges, steepled villages, and dramatic vistas of distant peaks that are emblematic of the Green Mountain State—in favor of grassy hillsides, meadows, mundane roadside scenes, and the pastures and rolling hills of the White River Valley. These later works, almost impressionist in nature, are unusual for Hopper in their nearly complete lack of architectural form or other signs of human presence.

Edward Hopper, White River at Royalton, Vermont, 1937, watercolor on paper, 22 x 29 5/8 inches. Collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Bequest of Sheila Hearne.

At the core of these later paintings is a group of landscapes recorded along the White River during the summers of 1937 and 1938 when Hopper, by then nationally famous, made his last two protracted visits to Vermont, boarding with his wife for a month on each occasion as paying guests on Wagon Wheels Farm in South Royalton. His time there seems to have freed Hopper’s artistic expression allowing him to turn his focus on the river, very likely the subject that he was seeking all along in his explorations of Vermont. The result was a coherent series of seven watercolors, all painted within a few miles of South Royalton, between the towns of Bethel and Sharon. The paintings in this series—peaceful scenes that capture the quiet beauty of Vermont’s sky, water, mountains, and meadows, at various times of day and in different kinds of weather—are distinctive among Hopper’s watercolors in technique and palette. They record the nuances of light, color, and texture of the Vermont landscape in a manner that evinces his preoccupation with the more tranquil depictions of pastoral landscape scenes known to him through his longstanding interest in the works of American landscape painters from Homer Dodge Martin to Thomas Cole. Further, his clear interest in the various shapes and textures of the trees—perhaps a response to the style of his contemporary Luigi Lucioni, who was well known for his pastoral Vermont scenes—is likely evidence of an abiding fascination with the poetry of Robert Frost.

In her recently published book Edward Hopper in Vermont, which forms the nexus for this exhibition, Bonnie Tocher Clause writes, “[t]he watercolors and drawings that Edward Hopper made in Vermont record his visions of a particular place, a landscape with distinctive forms, colors, textures, and quality of light. These works reveal something of Hopper’s process in exploring a place that was new to him: first identifying subjects that he wanted to paint; then experimenting with perspective and composition, painting variations on a theme, whether barn or hillside; and finally moving on to what lay around the next bend in the road. They show us Hopper’s vision of Vermont, whether in a mundane scene along a roadside or in a more obviously lovely view along the White River.”

More good reading:

Edward Hopper in Vermont blog

More images:

First Branch of the White River, Vermont