Mr. Hopper Goes to Washington, D.C., for a Residency in the Oval Office

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President Barak Obama looks at the Edward Hopper paintings now displayed in the Oval Office, on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Edward Hopper is in the Oval Office…and isn’t it about time?  It’s surprising to me that it’s taken this long for the most iconic of American artists to appear on this particular national stage. The two Hopper oils, dating from the early to mid-1930s, are on loan to the White House from the Whitney Museum of American Art. You can read the complete press release from the Whitney Museum here.

Cobb’s Barns, South Truro and Burly Cobb’s House show structures owned by the Hoppers’  Cape Cod neighbor, Burleigh Cobb  (Jo’s spelling of the name was carried forward in the title assigned to the painting). These works came to the Whitney after the Hoppers’ deaths (Edward in 1967, and Jo less than a year later) in the bequest to the Museum of their entire artistic estates, including all of the works that remained in the Hoppers’ studios, unsold. But why Hopper never signed these two beautiful paintings — and apparently never released them to the Rehn Galleries for sale — remains a mystery, yet another puzzle from the enigmatic Mr. Hopper.

“Burly” Cobb’s house and farm buildings were a frequent subject for Hopper, appearing in at least one other oil and five watercolors painted between 1930 and 1937. The architectural geometry of this complex of rural structures had clear appeal for him. The farm’s proximity to his summer home also afforded opportunities for observation and plein air painting at various times of day and season, from early summer into the autumn, and this is reflected in the range in  quality and intensity of light, shadow, color, and tonality in the Cobb farm paintings.

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Edward Hopper. Burly Cobb’s House, South Truro. Oil, 1930-33. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Hopper’s interest in rural architecture was manifest during his initial forays into Vermont, in 1927, when he made five finished watercolors of barns and farm buildings. In 1937 and ’38, during the Hoppers’ stays on Wagon Wheels Farm in South Royalton, however, while Jo made rough pencil sketches of barns along the road leading to Tunbridge, Edward painted only one such structure — the Slaters’ sugar house.  This rustic building is observed from the same perspective as that of the Cobb farm paintings, looking down on the roof from the slope above.

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Edward Hopper, Vermont Sugar House, 1938. Watercolor on paper. Private collection.

With Vermont Sugar House, Hopper’s fascination with rural architecture seems to have run its course; as Jo might have put it, he had “exhausted” this subject. Hopper did one more watercolor of the Cobb house, in 1942, but by then — the year after Nighthawks — his focus had moved elsewhere.  [For a January 2017 postscript on the White House Hoppers, click here.]