Hopper’s White River: The View From Paris

One of Edward Hopper’s Vermont watercolors, White River at Sharon (1937), is now on view in Paris, in the major Hopper retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais. It’s on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum until the end of January 2013, when it will return to its home in Washington, D.C.
Edward Hopper, White River at Sharon, Smithsonian American Art MuseumEdward Hopper, White River at Sharon, 1937, watercolor and pencil on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation.

I’ve been wondering what the French think of this small painting–whether this modest watercolor and others of its ilk attract any attention among the scores of major Hopper works on display, including the iconic Nighthawks (1942) and Gas (1940).  So I did a search to see if the Vermont watercolor received any notice in reviews of the Grand Palais show. Not surprisingly, I found no mention of it by critics or curators, but Googling nevertheless revealed that White River at Sharon is not a total stranger to the French.  In 1995, a portion of this painting was used as the cover image for the French edition of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (La pêche à la truite en Amérique). Thus this Vermont watercolor may actually have had more popular exposure in France than in America!
Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America, French editionI found this unexpected piece of Hopperabilia on a blog called A propos de livres…”  The blogger writes that even before seeing the Grand Palais exhibition he was familiar with many of the paintings without knowing the name of the artist.  He then presents the covers of some 50 books–French editions, all–that carry images of Hopper paintings. This is an amazing compilation, and I wonder if anyone has done this for American book covers. New research project, anyone?

By the way, Richard Brautigan’s novella, originally published in 1961 and a classic from the hippie era, has nothing to do with Vermont.  But you can indeed fish for trout in the White River.

On another blog from Paris, Colleen wrote about seeing the exhibition and her impressions of “Hopper and the Continuation of the Impressionist Influence.” I wrote and asked if she’d seen White River at Sharon, and if she had any comments about this Vermont painting from the perspective of Paris. Today I had a wonderful reply from her.  She returned to the exhibit specifically to see the painting, examined it closely, and asked other visitors for their comments, which she then reported to me in vivid detail.  This is almost as good as being at the Grand Palais myself (perhaps better, since I don’t speak French and Colleen relayed the comments in English!).  Our exhange of comments is below, and you can read her original commentary on Colleen’s Paris Blog.”  As a rejoinder perhaps I’ll ask some Vermonters to comment on Hopper’s paintings of the Seine.

From Colleen’s Paris Blog:

Bonnie Tocher Clause wrote:

I see that my recently published book, “Edward Hopper in Vermont,” is listed at the end of your blog; great! It includes reproductions of Hopper’s Vermont watercolors, and one of them, “White River at Sharon,” is in the Paris exhibit. Did you notice it? I’m curious to hear comments about it from the Parisian point of view.

Colleen wrote:
Dear Ms. Clause, Standing close, far away, to the side, the watercolor, “White River at Sharon” attracts little attention. The attention is general in nature. The works in the room “Watercolors 1926-1937″ related to the audio guide and the wall explanation attract the visitors. Whispering, it is difficult to hear what visitors say about “White River…” so finally I ask.

Two French guys probably in their late 20s stand and look at the painting. They stand a while. I tell them about Jo’s notes (wife of Hopper) of a railroad track. Until reading that passage in your book online (Google books), I had seen nothing of interest in the work, only the nature.

Once I posed questions to the gentlemen, a group formed and listened as we conversed. The guard approached us, telling me that pointing at the paintings is not permitted. Perhaps she was afraid I would slip and put my finger on the art.

Once the line of the track is pointed out, they see the embankment. It now stands out among the nature. Otherwise, the watercolor held no particular interest for the visitors.

I leave and then return to the room as a fresh crowd enters.

A mother and daughter stand in front pointing to the upper right corner.

Questioning them, they notice the previously unnoticeable brown line. They have no idea of its meaning; however, they speculate.

The daughter presents the idea that Hopper paints stable, unmoving objects in all his other works. This painting is unusual for the movement of the trees, the clouds, the water lapping up against the rocks. The mother is interested and curious about the composition of the tree on the rock: leaves and green on one side, dead branches on the other.

The daughter is in preparatory studies for literature at university. They are looking for the literary in the paintings. In that frame of thinking, I suggest that perhaps the dead side of the tree points toward the railroad track and represents a road to nowhere; a road of inactivity, which leads to death.

I hope this is what you had in mind as to commentary on “White River at Sharon”. Colleen

Edward Hopper, Vermont, and the Aloha Connection

No, this is not the title of a new song by the Muppets. Rather, it’s a short story about coming across an odd and unexpected reference to the Aloha Spirit while doing the research for Edward Hopper in Vermont—a connection that’s aside from my having lived for many years in Hawai’i. Bear with me while I establish the links.

A couple of weeks ago I read a wonderful article in the New York Times travel section about the visit that Georgia O’Keeffe made to Hawai’i in 1939.  Of course I was immediately struck by the parallels with Edward Hopper’s visits to Vermont during the same time period. Both of these stories involve New York artists’ anomalous sojourns in beautiful, rural places, far off the beaten track. O’Keeffe stayed in Hana, a plantation town on the outer island of Maui, and Hopper boarded on a farm in central Vermont, where cows outnumbered people. In both cases, the result was a small number of distinctive works that could not have been painted elsewhere, the flamboyant O’Keeffe’s dramatic and brilliantly colored oils of I’ao Falls and tropical vegetation, and the quiet Hopper’s watercolor scenes of the White River, a more peaceful and subtle landscape. The eye witness to each of these stories was a child, both now elderly but still with us to tell the tale. In Hawai’i, Patricia Jennings, the 12-year-old daughter of the plantation owner, served as a guide for O’Keeffe, and in Vermont, 7-year-old Alan Slater, son of the owners of Wagon Wheels Farm, joined the cows in watching Hopper paint the First Branch of the White River.  Jennings has a photo of Georgia that she snapped in 1939. Slater owns a watercolor portrait of himself, painted by Jo Hopper in 1937.

The Georgia O’Keeffe story got me thinking about Hawai’i, and since I’m sitting in Vermont, it was a natural segue to thoughts of the Aloha Foundation and its camps—Aloha Hive, Lanakila, and Ohana—which are not on the beaches of Maui, O’ahu, or Kaua’i, but on the Vermont shores of Lakes Fairlee and Morey, just about 30 miles north of South Royalton. Unlikely as it may seem, these camps reflect a very real historical connection between New England and “the Sandwich Islands,” in this case, between Vermont and Hawai’i.  The Aloha camps were founded over 100 years ago by Edward Gulick and Harriet Farnsworth Gulick, who were the descendants of missionary families who had emigrated from New England to Asia and the Pacific in the early 19th century.  The Gulicks grew up in Hawai’i, most likely attended the missonary-founded Punahou School, and then reversed their ancestors’ itinerary, crossing the ocean to the U.S. Mainland and returning to New England.  In 1905 “Mother” and “Father” Gulick opened their first camp for girls, named Aloha in loving remembrance of Hawai’i, and based on the ideals of ethical service and community responsibility. Aloha was followed by Aloha Hive, for younger girls, and Lanakila, for boys. The Aloha camps have subsequently hosted multiple generations of loyal campers and continue to be vibrantly active to this day.

And now we get to the Hopper connection.  In the summer of 1920, four years before her marriage to Edward Hopper, Josephine Nivison worked as an arts and crafts counselor at the Aloha Hive camp. Jo was an accomplished artist—having studied painting with the famous Robert Henri—but an impoverished one. To earn a living she taught in the public schools of New York City. As a teacher, she may have been recruited by the Aloha Camps, or she may have answered an ad in the New York Times, offering “A Summer Opportunity” with “good salary” in an appealing and beautiful location, a respite from the heat and crowds of the city.  In any event, in 1920 Jo traveled by train to Ely, Vermont, and spent two months at Aloha Hive. Returning to New York after this stint in the country, she wrote that the problems of city life seemed remote and unreal.
I found no other mention of Aloha Hive in Jo’s letters in the Whitney Museum archives. But Josephine Nivison’s 1920 registration card, identifying her simply as a “craft councillor,” remains in the files at the Aloha Foundation in Fairlee, and I visited their archives to look for any traces of Jo’s summer in Vermont. In a box of assorted memorabilia I found a panoramic photo of all the Aloha Hivers from 1920, campers seated in the front row, counselors lined up in the back—and there was Jo, unmistakable for her curly hair and diminutive stature, dressed in the camp uniform of middy blouse and tie. Truth be told, her brow is furrowed, and she does not appear to have been infused with the esprit de camp—the Aloha spirit, in this case. Perhaps she was ill, as she had been when she left a difficult teaching job in New York City.
November 2010 057A

Nevertheless, the Aloha Hive landscape must have made a positive impression on Jo, for seven years later she encouraged Edward Hopper to drive across the Connecticut River into Vermont, in search of places to paint.  Perhaps she did indeed absorb the Aloha spirit–Vermont version–and the idyllic directive to the Aloha Hive campers in this paradise on the shores of Lake Fairlee:
“Get the rest and inspiration of this lovely spot. . . . Store up happy memories . . . and an  intimacy with the many beautiful places about Aloha. Shut your eyes and see if you can carry away with you for long years to come the picture you see from your tent, the wooded hills, the rippling lake, and the gray distant mountains.” (From a brochure cited by  Katherine S. Christie, “History of the Aloha Foundation,” 2003.)

Writing this makes me think once again how much Vermont reminds me of Hawai’i, something that seems odd only to those who haven’t experienced both places.  But that’s the subject of another story.

Lake Fairlee, Vermont, site of the Aloha Foundation camps. Photo: Bonnie Clause, 2010.