Hopper for the Holidays

As I’m finishing my Christmas shopping, buying books, as I usually do, for friends and family, I want to remind you that Edward Hopper in Vermont (UPNE 2012) makes a great gift for anyone who loves Hopper — and/or  Vermont, New England, art history, Depression-era social history, watercolors, landscape painting, stories about art sales and collectors — or who simply enjoys a good read, a new take on this famous and popular American artist.

The Boston Globe dubbed my book “a fascinating inquiry into the taciturn Republican who gazed beyond the covered bridges and white church steeples to find the Vermont that spoke to him.”  Go to my Press and Reviews tab to read more.  There’s still just enough time to get Edward Hopper in Vermont in time for  Christmas.  It’s available from your favorite indie bookseller — by order if they don’t have it in stock — or from any of the online vendors.

Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year — and Happy Reading!

26 September 2012 – by ArtfixDaily Staff
Cover of "Edward Hopper in Vermont" by Bonnie Tocher Clause.
Cover of “Edward Hopper in Vermont” by Bonnie Tocher Clause.

Often overlooked in light of his contemplative urban scenes and bold architectural and Cape Cod views, the 1930s Vermont landscapes painted by American artist Edward Hopper represent a significant segment of his regional work, infused with a distinctive sense of place.

A new book by independent scholar Bonnie Tocher Clause delves deep into Hopper’s experience in the Green Mountain State with his wife, Jo, who was also an artist.

Clause tells the story of the Hoppers’ getaways to Vermont where they stayed on the Slater farm in South Royalton, enjoying farm life and painting en plein air.

The author’s research led her to find the sites depicted in Hopper’s Vermont paintings. “Edward Hopper in Vermont” also reveals two watercolors not previously recognized as Vermont scenes and details the development of Hopper’s singular style.

Some two dozen paintings and watercolors identified as Vermont scenes are shown in full color in this engaging look at Hopper’s artistic sojourns in his beloved White River Valley.

Edward Hopper in Vermont
by Bonnie Tocher Clause
University Press of New England

Oct. 2012 • 224 pp. 47 illus. (21 color)

Edward Hopper and The Week That Was: Zenith or Nadir?

The news from the New York auction houses this week has been fascinating for art-market watchers, and especially for anyone interested in American art and Edward Hopper.  First of all, there were four Hoppers for sale on subsequent days, two works at Sotheby’s on December 4, and two at Christie’s the following day. Edward Hopper, Steam Engine, The Ben FranklinThis is an unprecedented number of Hoppers to appear in the auction marketplace in any single week (and that’s not counting the artist’s charming boyhood drawing of a steam engine, on the block today at Freeman’s in Philadelphia—and just sold for $5,500).


As anyone still breathing knows by now, Hopper’s 1934 oil, East Wind Over Weehawken, garnered $40.5 million at Christie’s, a record price for Hopper. Of the two watercolors at Sotheby’s, Spindley Locusts (1936) sold for a comparatively paltry $305,000, and Church in Eastham (1948) took a pass, with bids not reaching the minimum estimate of $2 million.  And finally—as I reported here earlier this week—one of Hopper’s Vermont Watercolors, Sugar Maple, failed to sell at Christie’s, despite a low estimate of just $300,000.

This wide range of works, estimated prices, and results leaves us scratching our heads over who covets a particular work of art and why, and whether investment values have completely trumped aesthetic qualities and stewardship responsibilities (see my next paragraph) in today’s marketplace for fine art.  Everyone is wondering about the identity of the anonymous telephone bidder who paid such an astronomical price for Weehawken. Hopperphiles are hopeful that we’ll see a press release announcing that it has been acquired for a U.S. museum—perhaps, as has been rumored, by Alice Walton for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. (And, if so, what will they think of this bleak New Jersey scene in Bentonville, Arkansas? I bet that a lot of those folks would have preferred Sugar Maple!)

The sale of East Wind Over Weehawken to benefit the acquisition fund of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts has raised eyebrows and a few outcries.  PAFA bought this Hopper in 1952; the museum already had another Hopper oil, Apartment Houses (1923), acquired in 1925. Apparently, however, someone at PAFA decided that one monumental Hopper is enough for Philadelphia, and thus Weehawken was packed up and sent off to Christie’s.  The proceeds of $40.5 million (or whatever the net is after commissions, etc.) will give a healthy boost to PAFA’s acquisition fund, but for many of us there’s a sour note to the sound of museums trading off beloved works from their permanent collections for contemporary works that haven’t yet passed the test of time.

The prevalence of this practice was further underscored for Hopper last week, as Church in Eastham, the watercolor that quietly and without fanfare appeared at Sotheby’s, belongs to the Whitney Museum of American Art!  Church in Eastham was among thousands of Edward Hopper’s works in all media that came to the museum in 1968 as part of the Josephine N. Hopper Bequest.  Sotheby’s online catalog noted that the watercolor was being “sold to benefit future acquisitions.” Since this piece did not sell, it was presumably returned to the Whitney. One has to wonder, however, whether and when this painting or others of the Whitney’s Hoppers will next appear on the deaccession-and-up-for-auction agenda.

In the course of researching and writing my book, I had the pleasure of connecting with a few collectors whose appreciation for their Hoppers went far beyond investment value. Witness Lila Harnett, who owned Sugar Maple for a time in the 1960s, describing her experience of living with this Hopper painting:  “[I]n my mind’s eye, I have many times sought peace and quiet under its cool branches” (Edward Hopper in Vermont, p. 148).  Likewise, I found a certain refuge in re-reading Lila’s words, as a respite from contemplating the ominous implications of museum deacessioning and sky-rocketing prices.

Lila and Joel Harnett bought their Hoppers as young marrieds, when the watercolors were still selling for three figures and it was possible to pay for them on the installment plan.  They enjoyed Sugar Maple and other works in their home, as did David and Peggy Steine, the original owners of another Hopper watercolor of Vermont, Rain on River (1938).  Writing in 1969, David Steine described living with art as “adding a new dimension to each of our lives, aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally,” an experience that he and his wife shared with their children, now the stewards of the Steine collection. In this tradition, David Stein and his sister, Peggy Richter, shared Rain on River with Vermonters last summer, sending it from Nashville, Tennessee, on loan to the Middlebury College Museum of Art for the exhibit based on my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont.

As I recorded these stories and others from longtime Hopper owners, it seemed to me that art collection used to be a more personal enterprise in the past, but perhaps it was simply more transparent.  Regardless of such distinctions, let’s hope that Hopper collectors, whether persons or museums, private or public, continue to loan their works to exhibitions, allowing the less affluent among us to experience the thrill of seeing an original Edward Hopper.

This is what happened this past summer, when Hopper’s Vermont watercolors and drawings were shown in Middlebury—in Vermont, where Hopper painted them, for the first time—thanks to the loans from six museums and five private collectors who were willing to share their treasures for all of us to see. To my way of thinking, this is how the value of a work of art becomes truly exponential.

Edward Hopper, Sugar Maple (1938).  Christie's December 2013 221

At Auction:  $300,000 – $500,000

In an Exhibition:  Priceless!

Edward Hopper at Christie’s: Sale Results, 5 December 2013

The two paintings I wrote about in yesterday’s post came up for auction today in Christie’s American Art sale, and I’m watching the live sale, online.  Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken is the star of the sale (so far, at least); it was just sold for a hammer price of $36,000,000 ($36 million!) to a bidder on the phone. (The final price, to be announced, will be higher, as it will include the buyer’s premium.)  Hopper’s Vermont watercolor, Sugar Maple, was less popular among potential buyers. The bids reached $250,000 — less than
Sugar Maple at Christie's-page-001 the low estimate of $300,000 (which was probably the seller’s “reserve’ price) — and so the auctioneer declared a “pass,” i.e., Sugar Maple did not sell.  I feel a bit sad about this lovely little painting being rejected in its bid to find a new home, but it has company in being passed by. So far a George Bellows, a Rockwell Kent, and a Winslow Homer, among some beautiful works by other eminent artists, have not sold.

I do wonder what the future holds for Hopper’s Sugar Maple, whether the owners will take it home and hang it back up on the wall — and enjoy it! — or sell it privately, or consign it to Christie’s for a future sale.  This simple watercolor has had a series of owners since it left the galleries of Hopper’s dealer, Frank K. M. Rehn, in the 1950s, where it languished for some 13 years after Hopper painted it.  Sugar Maple was first assigned to the loan collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and for a reasonable fee you or I would have been able to borrow it — rather like a library book — to hang over the couch in the living room.  In 1955 it was purchased by William Zierler, a New York art dealer and collector, and since then it’s been sold and bought perhaps half a dozen times.

One owner, Lila Harnett, truly loved this painting, and in my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont, I quote what she wrote about her experience of owning Sugar Maple. If you’re curious, as I was, about who bought Hopper’s Vermont watercolors, and why, read my last chapter, “Where Are All the Children?” (the title reflects Jo Hopper’s referring to Edward’s paintings as the couple’s “children”). I included information and anecdotes about all the owners I was able to identify and trace — and in several cases, to speak with or communicate by email.

Sugar Maple, alas, has been rather like a child who is bounced from one foster family to another while failing to find a permanent home. I would gladly give it one…were the cost of adopting it not so high!


Hoppers for Your Christmas Wish List?

This week we have three chances* to buy an original Edward Hopper, including one of his rare watercolors of Vermont. On Thursday, 5 December, two Hopper paintings will be on the auction block in the American Art sale at Christie’sChristie's December 2013 225Sugar Maple, a watercolor that Hopper made during his 1938 stay on the Slaters’ farm in South Royalton, Vermont, and a major oil, an urban scene called East Wind Over Weehawken (1934) that has been deaccessioned by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and is being “sold to support the acquisition endowment” (much to my consternation and that of some other Philadelphians!).

I’d seen both of these paintings “in person” before — Sugar Maple in last summer’s exhibition of Hopper’s Vermont works at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, and East Wind Over Weehawken at PAFA and in various Hopper retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  But I couldn’t resist the unique opportunity to see both of these paintings at the same time, so yesterday I went to New York City with my friend Valerie for the pre-sale viewing at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center.

We wChristie's December 2013 221ere delighted to find Sugar Maple immediately, at the entrance to the first gallery. East Wind Over Weehawken was just beyond — occupying its own room, as befits a painting with an estimated price of  $22,000,000 – 28,000,000 (yes, this is indeed the correct number of zeros!).

Christie's December 2013 222
Christie’s clever arrangement allowed the simultaneous viewing of two extremes of Hopper’s work, two paintings that are dramatically different in every way — in subject, medium, size, and style. This placement also allowed the small (14 x 20 in.) and modest watercolor of Hopper’s Vermont to loom large in the foreground without being totally eclipsed by the monumental oil (34 x 50 in.) of Hopper’s New Jersey.

Christie's December 2013 250

I’ll be glued to Christie’s web site tomorrow, watching the live stream of the auction, curious to see what prices these two Hoppers fetch — and who buys them, if that’s revealed.  And if you, as I, can only dream about getting an original Hopper for Christmas, this is a reminder that my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont, includes color reproductions of Sugar Maple and 20 other paintings at an affordable price. It’s an excellent gift for yourself or anyone who loves Hopper and/or Vermont.

I’m also pleased to report that Christie’s cites Edward Hopper in Vermont in the catalog notes for Sugar Maple. You can read the lot notes online and view the entire e-catalog for Christie’s American Art sale by clicking here.

I splurged and bought the print catalog, and Valerie and I topped off our wonderful NYC day with a visit to The Frick Collection.  There we saw Vermeer’s luminous Girl With a Peal Earring and other incomparable works from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.  What a fabulous art-filled day!

Thanksgiving 2013 085
*Oops…those chances are going, going, gone! The third Hopper, Spindley Locusts (watercolor, 1936, Wellfleet, Massachusetts) was sold at Sotheby’s as I was writing this piece. The new owner paid $305,000 (hammer price plus buyer’s premium).