Edward Hopper didn’t visit Vermont in the winter (he hated cold weather), so he never saw the White River cloaked in snow and ice. His seven watercolors of the river landscape in Royalton, Bethel, and Sharon display the colors of late summer — grasses and trees with the yellowish tones that are a harbinger of autumn, pale blue waters rippled by wind, and the deep indigo shadows that mold the hills in the late afternoon.
Hopper’s First Branch of the White River, painted in 1938 in South Royalton, is the most intensely colorful of his Vermont landscapes. This watercolor, in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, is the best-known of Hopper’s Vermont paintings. It was included in the 2007 – 2008 Edward Hopper exhibition — the most recent retrospective of Hopper’s works in the U.S. — which travelled from Boston to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago, so you may have seen it in one of those venues. First Branch is also the most-often published of the Vermont works, and it’s on the cover of my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont.
We think Hopper missed something of Vermont’s beauty by not being here in the winter. So last week, after a few days of frigid weather (-16 degrees F, one morning…yes, that’s a minus sign!) we decided to take a ride up Route 110 to take a look at the First Branch of the White River as Hopper never saw it. Here are the results — and just click on the photos to see them full-size.
Hopper sat on the hillside near the Slaters’ farmhouse to paint the First Branch. In 1938 the area was still in pasture, but now it’s densely overgrown, making it impossible to exactly re-create Hopper’s perspective. But in winter, with the leaves off the trees, you can just see the curve in the river from a spot on Ducker Road that’s close to the place where Hopper propped his stool and easel. As you move down the road a bit, toward Route 110, the bridge becomes visible, crossing the First Branch near the site of an old mill.
There’s no place to stop along Route 110 for a view of the First Branch, so we drove down to the bridge so I could shoot photos of the frozen river on the far side of the bend. Hopper was facing south, roughly, and I faced north, looking back toward the hillside where Hopper sat. The tall pines may be the same ones that are in Hopper’s painting, as these trees live to a ripe old age. The slabs of concrete in the river are probably from the foundation of the bridge that was there in Hopper’s time, remains of the landscape of 75 years ago. Within the river there’s a whole new landscape, albeit a temporary one, a microcosmic universe formed by the ice.
While the sun was shining, we drove back up Ducker Road to take a look at the Slaters’ farm property in the snow. I photographed an old sugar maple, one that may have been there before the land was subdivided and the new owner built this house. Were it not for the structures,”Bob Slater’s Hill,” as Hopper called it, would be visible in the background, as it is in Hopper’s picture, Sugar Maple, from 1938.
There was still enough daylight to catch one more of Hopper’s views of the White River looking white, so we drove southeast on Route 14 to the place shown in White River at Sharon. I’d noted in a previous post about the French connection (“Hopper’s White River: The View from Paris”) that this spot is a swimming hole in the summer — but no bathers were in sight on this January day! The rock formations are now snow covered, but if you click on the image and look closely, you can see the match with Hopper’s watercolor — and there’s even a dead tree in the center of the outcrop.
This painting, by the way, is still in Paris. The Edward Hopper exhibition at the Grand Palais was so successful that it was extended for an additional week, then stayed open round-the-clock to accommodate the anticipated 40,000 last-minute visitors! The exhibition closed on February 3, so in a few days this picture of the White River will be crated up and on its way back to its home in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.