“City Roofs” at the Whitney Museum of American Art: Hopper’s Take, and My Own

The Whitney Museum has just announced the gift of a wonderful Edward Hopper painting:  City Roofs, a view from Hopper’s own roof in the building on New York City’s Washington Square, where Edward and Jo lived and painted for most of their adult lives.  To me, this painting is quintessentially Hopper, a realistic composition of architectural forms that’s simultaneously abstracted, with flat planes of color illuminated by sunlight. It’s static and quietly voyeuristic, Hopper as detached observer, literally above it all, yet hinting at the teaming life of the city behind all those windows, beneath all those chimneys and vents.  This view reminds me of my college days in New York, when the first days of spring drew us up to the top of our dorm building.  We enjoyed the views — ranges of other rooftops receding into the distance, punctuated by well-weathered water towers — although our main purpose was sunbathing. When I lay flat on my back, the parapets muffled the sound of the Broadway traffic, and closing my eyes to the warmth of the sun, “roof” almost became “beach.”  And yes, we wore our bathing suits…Hopper might have loved this sight!

The “new” Whitney Museum has its own fabulous views of city roofs.  During my first visit, for the press opening in April of 2015, what I saw from the terraces was as entrancing as the artwork within.  Here’s one of the many shots I took.

Hopper’s “Spindley Locusts”: Vermont-Like, But Not Vermont

Edward Hopper’s Spindley Locusts surfaced last week at Sotheby’s in New York, and it now has a new owner — the fortunate individual who could afford to pay $305,000 for this small watercolor! Hopper painted Spindley Locusts in 1936, near Pamet Point Road in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, according to Jo Hopper’s notes in the record book.

Edward Hopper, “Spindley Locusts,” watercolor, 1936.

In the summer of 1936 the Hoppers also travelled into Vermont, where Hopper painted three watercolor landscapes that have resonance with Spindley Locusts, in subject, composition, and palette. Most similar is Mountain Meadow, probably painted in the East Montpelier area (now in the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York).  Here, however, Hopper included an element that’s not in Spindley Locusts, a pale blue sky with filmy white clouds.

Edward Hopper, “Mountain Meadow,” 1936. Watercolor and pencil on paper. Parris Art Museum, Southampton, New York.

Indeed, the Vermont sky, with its endlessly changing patterns of clouds and sunlight, may have been one of the factors that inspired Hopper’s numerous returns to the Green Mountain state.  Take a look at the plates in my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont, to see the range of atmospheric variations that he captured here during his summer sojourns between 1927 and 1938.

 

Edward Hopper at the Super Bowl, A Reprise from 2015

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). 

Edward Hopper Paints His WorldFrom the jacket copy:

“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!

 

Edward Hopper’s Letter from South Royalton

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Edward Hopper to John Andrew Myers, September 18, 1937. [Click to enlarge.]

In mid-May I was in South Royalton, Vermont, installing an exhibit for the Royalton Memorial Library about Edward Hopper’s visits to Wagon Wheels Farm in 1937 and ’38.  This week I’m in my Philadelphia home, and as I was transferring files to a new computer, I was amused to come across this letter, written by Hopper while he was in South Royalton and mailed to Philadelphia. I found the original letter about a year ago in the archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, when I was preparing to do a talk about my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont, for the Academy’s “Art at Lunch” series.

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.

 

Hopper’s New Home on the Hudson

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.

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A billboarded and bubble-wrapped Hopper, anticipating the opening of the Whitney Museum in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. The new building is at the southernmost end of the High Line, where I was walking when I snapped this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.
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DSC04415Note:  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

DSC04395Of 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.” 


DSC04357The 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).

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Hopper’s bald head shines forth in Mabel Dwight’s portrayal of the Whitney Studio Club artists at work.

DSC04350The 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.

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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.
DSC04554Carter 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). DSC04600

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!

Edward Hopper’s “Vermont Sugar House” and Bob Slater’s Sugar House

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.

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

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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.

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The label on Irene Slater’s maple bonbon box carries a drawing of the farmhouse made by Edward Hopper, according to the Slater family. The original drawings, one in pencil and one in pen and ink, are now in a private collection.

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.

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Bob Slater and his son, Alan, collecting sap from maple trees, the first step in making maple syrup, early 1940s. Courtesy of Robert Alan Slater.

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!

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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’s Back from Tahiti…Next Stop, Dorset, Vermont!

Paul Gauguin Cruise, Sept 2014 776Edward 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.

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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
12:00 p.m.
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.

Location:
Dorset Historical Society / Bley House
Route 30 at Kent Hill Road
Dorset, Vermont 05251
802-867-0331

“Edward Hopper in Vermont” in Stockbridge, Massachusetts

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Edward Hopper, “Bob Slater’s Hill,” 1938. Watercolor on paper, 13.5 x 19.5 in. Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, West Virginia. Gift of Ruth Woods Dayton.

Thursday 14 August 2014
5:30 p.m.
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.

Location:
Norman Rockwell Museum
9 Route 183
Stockbridge, MA 01262
413-298-4100 x 221

Hopper’s Vermont in Washington, D.C.

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Edward Hopper, White River at Sharon. 1937, watercolor and pencil, 21 3/4 x 29 3/4 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation .

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.
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July 2014 LBI & Washington, DC 111Hopper 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.

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Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning. 1950, oil on canvas 34 1/8 x 40 1/4 in. (86.7 x 102.3 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation 1986.6.92 Smithsonian American Art Museum 1st Floor, West Wing.

From her perspective in this exhibition, Hopper’s Cape Cod woman can see all the way to Vermont…
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