Among my many questions and apprehensions about the impending presidency of Donald Trump is this rather frivolous one: Will he keep the Edward Hopper paintings in the Oval Office? There are two Hoppers there now, just visible in the background of this photo, top left. See my earlier post here…and watch this space!
Edward Hopper showing up at a football game is just about as unexpected as finding out that Edward Hopper was in Vermont. But to my surprise and pleasure, one of the best commercials aired during the 2015 broadcast of the Super Bowl game was inspired by Hopper’s most well-known painting, Nighthawks. The ad, starring Jennifer Hudson, was a clever take on Hopper’s iconic work from 1942. It disappeared from the airwaves almost immediately after the Super Bowl broadcast, however, and I thought it deserved being revived through my re-posting of what I wrote last year.
Regrettably, however, Hopper’s name wasn’t mentioned by the sponsoring company, either in the commercial itself or anywhere on the associated web site built around their advertising campaign’s theme of “dreams” (in retaliation, I won’t mention the company’s name here, though you’ll certainly see it in the ad!). What a shame, I think, that Hopper is being used to sell a product and an idea — that “dreams matter” — without naming the artist whose vision provided inspiration for the ad!
Well, I had to correct this egregious omission. There’s no better way to acknowledge Hopper as dreamer than to quote from a recent book, Edward Hopper Paints His World, by Robert Burleigh with paintings by Wendell Minor (Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2014).
“As a boy, Edward Hopper knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: on the cover of his pencil box, he wrote the words ‘EDWARD HOPPER, WOULD BE ARTIST.’….[N]o one wanted to buy his paintings — not for a long time. Still, he never stopped believing in his dream to be an artist.”
Note that Wendell’s cover painting places Hopper as an observer of the diner scene he painted as Nighthawks, the scene that was recreated as a set in the Super Bowl ad.
Of course one thing that Hopper never dreamed of was that he would be a presence at the Super Bowl. And given his modest and unassuming nature, he probably would not have complained about not being acknowledged as the source for the commercial imagery. But Josephine Nivison Hopper would have protested vociferously, no doubt, expressing outrage at the slight to the offending company, the advertising agency, and the entire audience for the Super Bowl, with tweets to all and letters to the editor of Advertising Age and to the powers that be in the NFL. But since Jo is not here to speak her mind, I will submit and promote my blog post.
Enjoy the commercial — but don’t forget about the wonderful original painting and the great artist, Edward Hopper, who inspired it!
Hopper had a long association with the Pennsylvania Academy, both as an exhibitor and as a member of the jury for their annual exhibition, as referrred to in his 1937 letter to John Andrew Myers, then the Academy’s curator. Interestingly, a number of the rarely-displayed Vermont watercolors were actually shown at the Academy — in 1939 (White River at Royalton and White River at Sharon), in 1940 (Vermont Hillside and Gravel Bar, White River), and in 1941 (Windy Day). Of course this was before I was born, and many years before I moved to Philadelphia, but I was nevertheless delighted to find that both Hopper and his Vermont watercolors traveled between South Royalton and Philadelphia, as do I. I’m certain that this means that we — Hopper, his Vermont paintings, and I — were destined to connect!
In the file of Hopper correspondence in the Pennsylvania Academy’s archives, one letter stands out for its flash of wry humor. In 1935, having been accorded one of the Pennsylvania Academy’s top honors, Hopper wrote to thank Myers and used the opportunity to reveal his political bend:
“I have received safely the Temple Medal which the Academy has honored me with and it now lies in my safe deposit box, well hidden from The New Deal should they begin to play pranks again and call in all gold medals.”
Hopper’s comment is not surprising, given his and Jo’s well-known antipathy for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Depression-era programs. I wonder if the Hoppers ever knew that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also visited South Royalton, in 1941, and that she also stayed overnight at Wagon Wheels Farm…perhaps sleeping in the same bed where the Hoppers had snoozed three years earlier!
The exhibit on Wagon Wheels Farm includes a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt in the farmhouse driveway, along with reproductions of Hopper’s South Royalton watercolors and Jo Hopper’s portrait of Alan Slater. It continues through June 13 in the Royalton Memorial Library in South Royalton.
The Whitney Museum of American Art opens its new building to the public on May 1, and I had the good fortune to visit it a week early, in a preview showing to members of the press and others who’ve written about Whitney-associated artists.
In a word, I found the new museum to be spectacular. I think Edward Hopper would have loved it too. The light! I was there on a cloudy day, and nethertheless the whole place was bathed in light, within and without, a clear wash of brightness that’s a function of the building’s glass walls and outdoor terraces, its location on the water, and its height relative to its immediate low-rise neighbors. And the views! On the west is the Hudson, the river that was foreground in the landscape of Hopper’s childhood, and to the north, east, and south lies the cityscape that formed the urban backdrop of Hopper’s mature works, paintings that have become synonymous with the painter as well as emblematic of American art.
Note: Click on the photos to see larger images. All photos here were taken by me on 23 April 2015. To see images of individual artworks, go to the Whitney’s collection database, searchable and online at http://collection.whitney.org/artists/by-letter/A
Of course the Whitney Museum is about much more than Edward Hopper; his name is just one of the hundreds of painters, sculptors, and installation artists whose works are included in the new museum’s inaugural exhibition. It’s entitled “America is Hard to See,” a reference to a poem by Robert Frost (who was, incidentally, Hopper’s favorite poet). Organized chronologically and thematically, the show occupies the galleries on all floors of the museum and tells the story of art in the United States since the founding of the Whitney Studio Club in 1914. Since many of the works on display relate to significant social and political issues and events, the exhibition actually constitutes a kind of visual history of America in the 20th century. For me, this lent a tongue-in-cheek flavor to the show’s thought-provoking title — which, like Frost’s poem and the artworks themselves, can be interpreted variously.
Even as one artist among many, Edward Hopper remains an intrinsic part of the Whitney’s public image and “branding,” and thus he is one of the few artists with multiple pieces on display in this initial exhibition. Hopper’s works are hung in four of the twenty-something thematic galleries, reflecting his versatility, the longevity of his career, his consistent association with the Whitney throughout the institution’s first six decades, and the sheer number of his pieces —in all media — that are in the museum’s collections. Hopper’s presence in this survey of American art is also a tribute to the elasticity of his work with respect to any classificatory scheme or time frame; he might be considered the artistic embodiment of the term “crossover.”
The Whitney Studio Club exhibit — in the museum lobby, and the only gallery that will be open to the public for free — considers the museum’s founding years and includes a wall of Hopper’s early (1920–’25) drawings of nudes, most of which have never been displayed. These figure drawings (left, and in the header photo), done in black charcoal and a rust-colored chalk, are strong and sure, surprisingly fluid and accomplished in comparison with Hopper’s later, rather clunky renderings of nudes in his more well-known oil paintings. That these works on paper are now “out of the closet” is thanks to the work of curator Carter Foster and his staff in completing the cataloging and analysis of the thousands of pieces in the Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, in preparation for last year’s exhibition, Hopper Drawing, at the “old” Whitney. Interspersed among the Hopper studies are two pieces showing the Studio artists in action: a drypoint by Peggy Bacon (The Whitney Studio Club, 1925) and a lithograph by Mabel Dwight, (Life Class, 1931).
The introductory gallery also includes one of Hopper’s Parisian oils, Le Bistro (1909), showing a couple imbibing in an oudoor cafe on the banks of the Seine. It’s a good choice for this gallery; it was exhibited at Whitney Studio Club in 1920, and it’s a scene that will surely be replicated this summer, on the Whitney’s plaza cafes on the banks of the Hudson.
Proceeding chronologically, the exhibition continues at the very top of the museum, on the 8th floor. There — if you can tear yourself away from the floor-to-ceiling windows and comfy leather couches overlooking the Hudson, on the west side of the building, and the cafe with its expansive outside piazzas, on the east — you’ll find two classic Hopper oils, Early Sunday Morning (1930) and Seven A.M. (1948). They share a wall, quietly, in one of the darker interior galleries. Although the overhead lighting is superb in eliminating extraneous reflections, from a certain perspective the new building manages to assert itself by adding another window to brighten up Hopper’s austere facade. To me the reflected intrusion seemed appropriate, as well as rather humorous.
Hopper’s Railroad Sunset (1929) blazes from a wall in the section on “Breaking the Prairie.” This epigraph is a double entendre; it’s both the title of the plowing scene in a Grant Wood triptych, displayed nearby, and a reference to the ground-breaking landscape interpretations of 1920s and ’30s. The inscription in Grant Wood’s study adds yet another layer to the metaphor, quoting Daniel Webster: “When tillage begins, other arts follow.” Hopper’s gorgeous landscape is a departure for him, but a brilliant one, shown to great advantage in this gallery. It was part of the Josephine N. Hopper Bequest to the Whitney, comprising works that remained in the Hoppers’ studio after their deaths. Seeing it here in all its glory, one can only wonder why it was never sold.
Carter Foster’s curatorial work also insured the inclusion in the current show of one of Hopper’s many drawings for Nighthawks (1942), an acknowledgement and a low-key reference to Hopper’s most famous painting—surely to be sought-after by tourists (although the painting’s not owned by the Whitney and thus not on display here).
The Hopper drawing is adjacent to other works from the 1930s by Hopper’s colleagues George Bellows and Reginald Marsh. It’s mounted alongside two delightfully humorous drawings by Mabel Dwight, one of numerous women whose work is receiving long-overdue recognition in the new Whitney.
In a future post I’ll write more about the iterations between the museum, its setting, and the artworks — especially Hopper’s and others from the 1930s and ’40s. Meanwhile, I’ll express the hope that the Whitney will continue to display our old friends among Hopper’s works as well as those that are less well known. I would love to see some of Hopper’s Vermont watercolors (the Whitney owns about eight of them, in addition to a number of drawings of the White River in South Royalton) on display in this wonderful new museum on the Hudson. And of course I’ll be happy to provide information for the wall texts!
This spring, as Vermont’s maple sugaring season came and went, I thought about the sugar house on the South Royalton farm where Edward and Jo Hopper boarded in the summers of 1937 and ’38. This is the sugar house — then owned by Irene and Bob Slater — that is the subject of Hopper’s watercolor, Vermont Sugar House. This Hopper painting appeared frequently during the summer of 2013, both online and in print, as the signature image and poster for the then-upcoming exhibition, Edward Hopper in Vermont, at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.
Edward Hopper, Vermont Sugar House, 1938. Watercolor on paper, 14 x 20 inches. Collection of Louis Bacon.
The Slaters’ sugar house on Wagon Wheels farm, early 1940s. Courtesy of Robert Alan Slater.
What always strikes me in the spring, as the wood stoves are fired up in sugar houses around Vermont and sap is being boiled down to make maple syrup, is that Hopper had painted the Slaters’ sugar house during its downtime; he never saw it operating. In the late summer of 1938 Edward and Jo Hopper were on vacation in Vermont, and so was the sugar house, a workhorse structure that would remain quiescent until the sap ran again the following spring. What Hopper knew of the building’s function would have been hearsay, gleaned from conversations with the Slaters, dairy farmers for whom maple syrup and candy provided essential additional income during the Great Depression.
As boarding tourists — another source of supplemental income for the farm — the Hoppers ate all of their meals with the Slater family, and most likely they enjoyed maple syrup on their breakfast pancakes and savored Irene’s maple bonbons as an after-dinner treat.
Bob and Irene would have explained the maple sugaring process and pointed out their maple grove — the trees that they tapped — as well as their sugar house, high on the hillside pasture above the farmhouse.
Hopper’s choosing to make a painting of the sugar house — the only painting of a building among his South Royalton watercolors — surely reflected not only his aesthetic values but also his interest in the workings of Wagon Wheels farm. Hopper also painted a single monumental maple tree on the Slaters’ property, selecting an iconic image of Vermont that represented a significant element of the Green Mountain economy, in Hopper’s time as it does now.
I’ve tried to capture some of the flavor of the Hoppers’ stay in South Royalton in the central chapter of my book, “On the Slaters’ Farm.” That I know as much as I do of the Hoppers’ time there is thanks to Robert Alan Slater, who was seven years old when the artists first visited his parents’ farm. Edward and Jo knew the boy as Alan, but as an adult he called himself Bob, like his father.
I located Bob and his wife, Thelma, when I first began the research for my book, and their help all along has been invaluable to me. Bob provided access to the materials he inherited from his parents, including letters from Jo to Irene, Jo’s watercolor of himself as a child, and Edward’s drawings of the farmhouse, which he made for labels on Irene’s maple products. During our many telephone conversations, Bob shared recollections that enriched my view of farm life in Vermont during the 1930s. His stories also enabled me to add a degree of warmth and humanity to my account of Edward Hopper’s time in Vermont.
Sadly, Robert Alan Slater passed away on May 3, 2013, at age 82, in his home in California. I will be forever grateful for his friendship, for his gregarious nature and enthusiasm for my project, and for his generosity in sharing stories, family memorabilia, and the photographs that appear here, in my book, and in the exhibition at Middlebury.
I know that my gratitude is shared by many Vermonters, who tell me that they have found some of their own history in Bob Slater’s stories and images from Wagon Wheels Farm. Thank you, Bob. We will remember you!
Robert Alan Slater (1930 – 2013). Left, about seven years old, ca. 1937. Right, in 2010, holding the watercolor portrait of himself that Jo Hopper painted in 1937. Adjacent to her signature Jo wrote: “Alan Slater on his 7th birthday, and made to pose on his birthday!”
Edward Hopper and I are back in Vermont, after a wonderful cruise in French Polynesia on the M/S Paul Gauguin. Hopper accompanied me — well, virtually, at least — on my Kindle. I was happy to also find him in the onboard library, his New England lighthouse holding its own among works by the ship’s namesake and the French Impressionists.
We are now once again landlocked, and I’m looking forward to giving a presentation about Edward Hopper in Vermont for the Dorset Historical Society on Thursday, October 16. Dorset has great significance for the history of art in Vermont, as the locus for a small group of artists called the Dorset Painters, the founders of what became Vermont’s first art colony. The Dorset Painters and their annual exhibitions morphed into what became — and is still — the Southern Vermont Arts Center, in nearby Manchester.
There’s no evidence that I know of that Edward and Josephine Hopper ever visited Dorset or Manchester, although a number of the Hoppers’ artist friends from New York went there to paint in the summers — indeed, were in residence there during the same period as the Hoppers’ visits to the Green Mountain State, between 1927 and 1938. Reginald Marsh, a longtime New York colleague of Edward’s, often visited Dorset after marrying his second wife, Felicia, daughter of Herbert Meyer, one of the founding members of the Dorset Painters. In New York, Felicia Meyer Marsh and Jo Hopper became empathetic friends, sharing the common fate of being female artists whose work was overshadowed by their husbands.
But while the Marshes and other colleagues and friends may have inspired the Hoppers’ various trips into Vermont, it seems most likely that the solitary and relatively unsocial Edward purposely avoided the colony life of Dorset and Manchester. Instead, he chose the relative quiet and anonymity of South Royalton, where his extended visits seem to have gone almost entirely without notice or unwanted attention.
On October 16, in my presentation for the Dorset Historical Society, I’ll talk about the early Vermont / New York associations and the Dorset / Manchester connections, albeit indirect, with Edward Hopper. I hope you’ll join me for this lunchtime talk — on what promises to be a beautiful autumn day in Vermont!
Thursday 16 October 2014
Dorset Historical Society
Edward Hopper in Vermont
Book Talk & Slide Presentation
Edward and Jo Hopper first discovered the scenic beauty of Vermont in 1927, traveling there again in 1935 and 1936 in their continuing search for new places to paint. During these trips and two extended sojourns in South Royalton, in 1937 and ’38, Edward Hopper produced some two dozen paintings, watercolors that are among the most distinctive of his regional works. Author Bonnie Tocher Clause will tell the story of Hopper’s visits to Vermont and the sites depicted in his singular interpretations of the region. For the Dorset audience, Clause will also discuss Hopper’s connections with some of the Southern Vermont Artists of the 1920s and ’30s–although Hopper himself did not venture into this area of Vermont
This talk is part of the Dorset Historical Society‘s Third Thursday lunch series. Edward Hopper in Vermont (University Press of New England, 2012) will be available for purchase and signing.
Dorset Historical Society / Bley House
Route 30 at Kent Hill Road
Dorset, Vermont 05251
Thursday 14 August 2014
NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM
“Edward Hopper in Vermont”
An Evening with Bonnie Tocher Clause
This talk is part of the Thursday evening series at the Norman Rockwell Museum exploring the life and art of Edward Hopper, whose career as an illustrator is highlighted in the NRM’s current exhibition, The Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator. A reception follows each program. Free with Museum admission.
Edward and Jo Hopper first discovered the scenic beauty of Vermont in 1927, traveling there again in 1935 and 1936 in their continuing search for new places to paint. During these trips and two extended sojourns on a farm in South Royalton, in 1937 and ’38, Edward Hopper produced some two dozen paintings—watercolors that are among the most distinctive of his regional works. Author Bonnie Tocher Clause will tell the story of Hopper’s visits to Vermont and the sites depicted in his singular interpretations of the region. Edward Hopper in Vermont (University Press of New England, 2012) will be available for purchase and signing.
Norman Rockwell Museum
9 Route 183
Stockbridge, MA 01262
413-298-4100 x 221
This week I spent a couple of delightful days in Washington, D.C., doing research in the Archives of American Art and paying a visit to one of Edward Hopper’s Vermont watercolors, White River at Sharon (1937). This work is now on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, until August 17, in the exhibition Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection.
White River at Sharon is reproduced in my book, but this was the first time I’d seen the original painting, as the Smithsonian would not loan it for last summer’s Edward Hopper in Vermont exhibition at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. Like most art museums, SAAM has a policy that watercolors can only be displayed — and exposed to light — intermittently and for limited periods of time. When Middlebury asked to borrow White River at Sharon, it had just been returned to lightless storage, after being “out” for many months in the major Hopper exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, France. I understand the reason for the rule, of course, but I was nevertheless perturbed that the Smithsonian would send this painting to France but not to Vermont — where it still has never been exhibited.
Thus I was very glad to finally be able to see the original, pulled out of storage for the Smithsonian’s own exhibition this summer. I’m happy to report that the colors are still strong and true (and I have to admit that yes, the pristine appearance of this 77-year-old watercolor does indeed justify the restrictive display policy!). The water is as blue as it is in prints from the 1960s. I was relieved to see this, as more recent reproductions, including that on the SAAM web site, have a oddly purplish tinge, unlike any color seen in nature, at least in Vermont.
Hopper’s rendering of the water is a marvel; you can almost feel the breeze that’s ruffling the surface.
Hopper also captured the distinctive cloud formations and cool light associated with the weather of early fall, preceding a storm. Interestingly, here Hopper used white paint to give the clouds some additional texture, whereas in others of the Vermont watercolors the clouds are simply unpainted white paper, shaped by the blue of the surrounding sky.
There’s much in this small painting that you can’t see in the reproductions, or even in my closeup photos here, so it’s worth a trip to the SAAM to see it, especially for watercolorists. At the same time you can see a wonderful Hopper oil, Cape Cod Morning, exhibited on the wall just opposite White River at Sharon. Seen together, these two works show something of the incredible range of Hopper’s talents and versatility.
UPDATE: Click here for a link to a Google map with locations of Hopper’s sites in the White River Valley, labeled with the titles of the paintings.
Visitors to this weekend’s Vermont History Expo, on the grounds of the Tunbridge World’s Fair, will be driving past some of the places associated with Edward Hopper’s visits to Vermont in 1937 and ’38. To facilitate a quest, here’s a brief guide, with photos, for locating “Hopper’s places” along Route 110 between South Royalton and Tunbridge.
Hopper’s First Branch of the White River (1938) — the watercolor that graces the cover of my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont — shows the big curve in Route 110 that mirrors the bend in the river below. To paint this picture Hopper perched on the hillside above Route 110, near the intersection with Ducker Road, but the slope is now so heavily overgrown that it’s impossible to recreate his exact perspective. If you drive up Ducker Road and look back, however, you can just catch a glimpse of the First Branch. Look for the bridge that crosses the river a bit to the south. Stand on the bridge deck and in the riverbed below you’ll see the remains of the bridge that appears in Hopper’s painting. Look beyond to see the bend in the river.
Just to the north of the curve in Route 110 is the Slaters’ farmhouse, where Edward and Jo Hopper boarded in 1937 and ’38. Originally called Wagon Wheels, the farm property has been broken up and sold to various owners; the farmhouse is now divided into apartments that are usually rented to students at the Vermont Law School (located in South Royalton). Later this summer a historic site marker will be placed on the lawn, commemorating the practice of farmers accommodating tourists — including the Hoppers — during the Great Depression. (And in 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt slept here, while visiting Camp William James, an offshoot of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Tunbridge.)
On the northeast edge of the Slaters’ farm property is Jigger Hill, which forms the boundary between South Royalton and Tunbridge. Hopper dubbed it “Bob Slater’s Hill” and gave this title to his watercolor. He painted the hill from the field directly behind and above the farmhouse. To replicate his view, just drive up Ducker Road and use a zoom lens, as I did, to shoot across the field from the edge of the property (no trespassing in the field!).
In Jo Hopper’s sketchbook is a rough drawing labeled “Big hill at line bet. S. Royalton & Tunbridge – tawny color – clumps of dark masses. Line of willows following stream along foot of hill. Make big canvas.” Neither Edward or Jo, as far as I know, made a large painting of this scene, but both Jo’s sketch and Edward’s watercolor record their interest in “Bob Slater’s Hill,” the most prominent feature of the landscape that they gazed upon daily during their two month-long sojourns at the South Royalton farm.
I found a photocopy of Jo’s sketchbook in the archives of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York several years ago, while searching for any mention of Vermont in the files of the Edward and Josephine Hopper Research Collection. I was so thrilled to find Jo’s sketches with the handwritten notations of “S. Royalton” and “Tunbridge” that I broke the library’s silence with an exclamation of glee — surely a reaction to these scribbles that no one else has experienced, before or since!
Even more exciting, when Mike and I returned to Vermont we found that “Jo’s barns” are still there, alongside Route 110 about halfway between Wagon Wheels farm and the Tunbridge town center. I took the photo above from a roadside pull-off place that affords a view exactly duplicating Jo’s of a “dark-colored barn…L. of road.” We realized that the Hoppers must have parked their Buick in the very same place — more than 75 years ago. Once again, we imagined that we were indeed tracing the Hoppers’ path through our part of Vermont, with Mike at the wheel, like Edward, and me in the passenger seat, like Jo, recording the scenes that captured the Hoppers’ fancy as they scouted for places to paint.
Note: Jo Hopper’s sketchbook remains in private hand, and I’ve not been able to obtain permission from the owners to reproduce any of the sketches that I describe here and in my book (pages 37-38, 62, 79-82, 84). To my knowledge, the Vermont sketches have not been published elsewhere, but other pages from Jo’s sketchbook are reproduced in J. Anton Schiffenhaus, Silent Light–Silent Life: A Window into the World of Edward and Josephine Hopper, Provincetown, MA, 1996.