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.]

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

  1. Good point about Edward Hopper picking an elevated point of view to let the roof’s shapes play the dominant role in his Vermont Sugar House watercolor. I’ve always been struck by how Hopper managed to avoid the obvious way of approaching his subjects. If an artist’s job is to bring fresh eyes to an idea, Hopper was more than up to the task.

    • Philip, as someone who knows Hopper so well–his work, and his places in South Truro–do you have any guesses about why he didn’t sign or sell his three oils of the Cobb farm? He signed and took to Rehn three watercolors of the same subjects, done in 1930 and ’31, whereas a fourth watercolor, “Cobb’s Barns and Distant Houses,” like the oils, remained unsigned, unsold. I’d assume the watercolors were done first. Perhaps he just wasn’t as satisfied with his “translation” of the subject to oil? Do you know if he took the oils back to New York, and whether they were found in the Washington Square studio or stashed in the South Truro house when he died?

  2. The elevated vantage point allows Hopper to create rock solid compositions for both of the works. Study the composition lines and triangular shapes found in “Burly Cobb’s House, South Truro” and you will Hopper at his best. Similarly in “Vermont Sugar House” Hopper firmly structures the composition within triangular forms. The essence of both works is the depiction of sunlight on the roofs and walls of the buildings.

    • Noel, thanks for this good comment. I think that Hopper had a great eye for composition, and in his plein air paintings he was masterful at finding the right perspective to achieve was he was “after,” as he might have put it. For me, photographing the sites that Hopper painted here in South Royalton, Vermont, has been an interesting exercise in this regard. In trying to recreate Hopper’s views of the landscape, it’s become clear to me how carefully he positioned himself to capture, for example, the multiple levels of landscape that appear in each of his watercolors of the White River.

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