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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3 thoughts on “Hopper’s Vermont in Washington, D.C.

  1. Bonnie, sounds like you had a great trip to D.C.

    There is something remarkable about seeing the original painting after you have first come to know it well through reproductions. The sense of scale is always a surprise. I remember when Alice and I traveled to Middlebury last year to see your Hopper in Vermont exhibition almost all the paintings were so much larger than I had imagined them. Great paintings to be sure, but they had so much more physical presence than I had been expecting.

    I think you’ll have the same sensation when you go to Norman Rockwell Museum for your talk- some Hopper’s drawings for his illustrations are really big. As you say in your post above, you feel the handling of the medium so much better in person. Stephanie Plunkett and the staff at the Museum do a really nice job- I am sure your will be please at how they set up upcoming talk there.

    • Philip, yes, I was surprised as well by the size of “White River at Sharon” and others of the Vermont watercolors. I keep wondering how Hopper managed to work on such large sheets of paper outdoors, especially when it was windy (as in “Windy Day”!). I know that he pinned or tacked his paper to a support because “Mountain Meadow” was photographed out of the frame, and you can see the pinholes all around the edge of the paper. Other than that, I’ve not found any evidence about his equipment for plein air painting; have you? I’ve only seen one photo of him painting outside (in Levin’s biography, p. 207), and there he’s working on an oil in Maine, apparently on a stretched canvas, easier to manage than paper, I would think.

      I’m looking forward to seeing the Norman Rockwell Museum show–and to doing a presentation there. Glad it went so well for you–but no surprise there!

  2. You do get around Bonnie! Congratulations. I have an article from Cape Cod newspaper about Hopper’s Truro house that may be of interest to you. Pls. send e-mail about where I should mail it.

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