UPDATE: Click here for a link to a Google map with locations of Hopper’s sites in the White River Valley, labeled with the titles of the paintings.
Visitors to this weekend’s Vermont History Expo, on the grounds of the Tunbridge World’s Fair, will be driving past some of the places associated with Edward Hopper’s visits to Vermont in 1937 and ’38. To facilitate a quest, here’s a brief guide, with photos, for locating “Hopper’s places” along Route 110 between South Royalton and Tunbridge.
Hopper’s First Branch of the White River (1938) — the watercolor that graces the cover of my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont — shows the big curve in Route 110 that mirrors the bend in the river below. To paint this picture Hopper perched on the hillside above Route 110, near the intersection with Ducker Road, but the slope is now so heavily overgrown that it’s impossible to recreate his exact perspective. If you drive up Ducker Road and look back, however, you can just catch a glimpse of the First Branch. Look for the bridge that crosses the river a bit to the south. Stand on the bridge deck and in the riverbed below you’ll see the remains of the bridge that appears in Hopper’s painting. Look beyond to see the bend in the river.
Just to the north of the curve in Route 110 is the Slaters’ farmhouse, where Edward and Jo Hopper boarded in 1937 and ’38. Originally called Wagon Wheels, the farm property has been broken up and sold to various owners; the farmhouse is now divided into apartments that are usually rented to students at the Vermont Law School (located in South Royalton). Later this summer a historic site marker will be placed on the lawn, commemorating the practice of farmers accommodating tourists — including the Hoppers — during the Great Depression. (And in 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt slept here, while visiting Camp William James, an offshoot of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Tunbridge.)
On the northeast edge of the Slaters’ farm property is Jigger Hill, which forms the boundary between South Royalton and Tunbridge. Hopper dubbed it “Bob Slater’s Hill” and gave this title to his watercolor. He painted the hill from the field directly behind and above the farmhouse. To replicate his view, just drive up Ducker Road and use a zoom lens, as I did, to shoot across the field from the edge of the property (no trespassing in the field!).
In Jo Hopper’s sketchbook is a rough drawing labeled “Big hill at line bet. S. Royalton & Tunbridge – tawny color – clumps of dark masses. Line of willows following stream along foot of hill. Make big canvas.” Neither Edward or Jo, as far as I know, made a large painting of this scene, but both Jo’s sketch and Edward’s watercolor record their interest in “Bob Slater’s Hill,” the most prominent feature of the landscape that they gazed upon daily during their two month-long sojourns at the South Royalton farm.
I found a photocopy of Jo’s sketchbook in the archives of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York several years ago, while searching for any mention of Vermont in the files of the Edward and Josephine Hopper Research Collection. I was so thrilled to find Jo’s sketches with the handwritten notations of “S. Royalton” and “Tunbridge” that I broke the library’s silence with an exclamation of glee — surely a reaction to these scribbles that no one else has experienced, before or since!
Even more exciting, when Mike and I returned to Vermont we found that “Jo’s barns” are still there, alongside Route 110 about halfway between Wagon Wheels farm and the Tunbridge town center. I took the photo above from a roadside pull-off place that affords a view exactly duplicating Jo’s of a “dark-colored barn…L. of road.” We realized that the Hoppers must have parked their Buick in the very same place — more than 75 years ago. Once again, we imagined that we were indeed tracing the Hoppers’ path through our part of Vermont, with Mike at the wheel, like Edward, and me in the passenger seat, like Jo, recording the scenes that captured the Hoppers’ fancy as they scouted for places to paint.
Note: Jo Hopper’s sketchbook remains in private hand, and I’ve not been able to obtain permission from the owners to reproduce any of the sketches that I describe here and in my book (pages 37-38, 62, 79-82, 84). To my knowledge, the Vermont sketches have not been published elsewhere, but other pages from Jo’s sketchbook are reproduced in J. Anton Schiffenhaus, Silent Light–Silent Life: A Window into the World of Edward and Josephine Hopper, Provincetown, MA, 1996.
The town of Tunbridge, Vermont, is just a few miles north of South Royalton and Wagon Wheels Farm, where Edward and Josephine Hopper sojourned in the summers of 1937 and ’38. The White River, the subject of seven of Edward’s Vermont watercolors, runs through Tunbridge, but there are no known Hopper paintings or drawings of the river in that locale. It is clear, however, that the Hoppers drove up Route 110 toward Tunbridge, scouting for places to paint. From the passenger seat of their Buick, Jo Hopper sketched several barns, labeling them as along the “Tunbridge Road.” Although Jo’s sketches were never turned into paintings, the structures that captured the Hoppers’ interest are still there. They are immediately recognizable as the barns in Jo’s rough drawings, remaining as a visual link between Tunbridge and Edward and Josephine Hopper, and to me, a reminder of the Hoppers’ time in Vermont.
This weekend, June 21 and 22, the Hoppers return to Tunbridge — figuratively, at least — for the Vermont History Expo. On Sunday, at 11:00 a.m., I’ll be speaking in the authors’ tent about my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont, certainly a perfect fit for this year’s Expo theme: “Artists and Artisans: Vermont’s Creative Heritage.” See the full roster of the History Expo’s talks by Vermont authors, on both Saturday and Sunday, here. This wonderful two-day celebration of history and creativity will showcase many of Vermont’s fine artists and craftspeople, past and present, including folk artist Lee Hull of South Royalton. The beautiful artwork for the Expo poster (below) was donated by Vermont artist Anne Cady.
And there’s another Hopper connection at the Expo. The state’s Historic Sites Division will display a new roadside marker to be placed near the intersection of Route 110 and Ducker Road, on the lawn of the farmhouse formerly known as Wagon Wheels. With the heading “Tourists Accommodated,” the maker commemorates the practice of farmers taking in paying guests as a source of extra income during the Great Depression. The Hoppers are listed as among the famous guests who stayed at Wagon Wheels, as is Eleanor Roosevelt.
I’ll write more about the marker and post photos when it’s installed at the site, later this summer. Meanwhile, be sure to see it if you go to the Expo, and I hope you’ll also come to hear my talk. This time my focus will be about what I learned about Vermont history while researching the context of Hopper’s Vermont paintings. In other words, I’ll be talking about Hopper’s art as history. See you on the grounds of the Tunbridge World’s Fair!
Paintings by Josephine Nivison Hopper (1883 – 1968) are on display at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, New York, until June 15. The exhibition, curated by art historian Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, includes watercolors from the Sanborn Collection. This is a wonderful chance to see Jo’s work, rarely displayed, and to visit Edward’s boyhood home, overlooking the Hudson River.
Whenever I speak about Edward Hopper in Vermont, members of the audience want to hear more about Jo — in fact, I hear more questions about Jo than about her famous husband. Of course Jo is a big part of my story about the Hoppers’ sojourns in Vermont, as she is an essential element of any story about Edward; one simply can’t write or talk about him without acknowledging Jo’s significant role in all aspects of his life, career, and legacy. From the time of their marriage, in 1924, the two were together constantly. Jo served as Edward’s muse and model, prodding him on when he was unable to paint. Her notes in the Ledger Books — including descriptions of Edward’s paintings and details of their sales — are invaluable records of the progress of his career. Her loquacious letters and diaries are richly detailed accounts of the couple’s life and travels, or “wherebouts,” as Jo put it. Indeed, without Jo’s voice we would know precious little about the notoriously silent Edward. Unfortunately, Jo’s own career as an artist foundered after her marriage to Edward. Although she kept on painting throughout her life, much of her work has been lost.
To find out more about Jo see my post about “Life Before Edward” and read the articles listed at the end. Thanks to Megan Lawlor, an artist who came to my talk at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on April 30, I’ve added another reference, American Women Modernists, a book about the women artists, including Josephine Verstille Nivison, who studied with Robert Henri. This book includes reproductions of a number of Jo’s paintings that were left to the Whitney Museum of American Art by Jo’s friend and legatee, Felicia Meyer Marsh.
And if you possibly can, go to Hopper House to see Jo’s paintings — in a one-woman show that would surely be thrilling to her.
I’m delighted to announce that next Wednesday, April 30, I’ll be giving a presentation on Edward Hopper’s Vermont watercolors in Philadelphia, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. PAFA is the oldest art museum and school in the nation, and it’s a great honor to be invited to speak there, in the Historic Landmark Building designed by renowned architects Frank Furness and George W. Hewitt. All details about my talk are given below and on the PAFA web site.
There are strong connections between the Academy and Edward Hopper. His work was shown in PAFA’s annual exhibitions nearly every year between 1922 and the early 1950s. Further, five of the Vermont watercolors — rarely exhibited anywhere — were shown at PAFA between 1939 and 1941, in the Annual Philadelphia Water Color Exhibitions. In 1925 PAFA was the first museum to purchase a Hopper oil painting, Apartment Houses (1923), which it still owns. (A second Hopper oil, East Wind Over Weehawken, purchased in 1952, was sold by PAFA last December…but that’s another story.)
As reported in Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, Josephine Nivison Hopper was also recognized by the Academy, albeit fleetingly. In 1938 her painting of Cape Cod Hills (or Sandy Hills) was included in PAFA’s Annual Exhibition, a rare public acknowledgement of her talent that was doubled by the presence in the same show of Edward’s oil, Jo Painting.
This Friday, in preparing for my talk, I’m visiting PAFA’s archives for the first time. I hope to find a few more details about the Hoppers’ connections with this venerable Philadelphia institution, and if so, I’ll include them in my talk. All are welcome — and it’s free!
Wednesday 30 April 2014
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts / Art at Lunch
Edward Hopper as Plein Air Painter: Watercolors of Vermont, 1927-38
Edward Hopper is often characterized as the quintessential painter of urban scenes. In contrast, Hopper’s watercolors—made outdoors during summers spent away from the city—reveal other aspects of the artist’s talents and persona. Bonnie Tocher Clause, author of Edward Hopper in Vermont, shows slides of drawings and watercolors Hopper created during visits to the rural White River Valley in the 1930s. These works were last seen at PAFA seven decades ago, when they were among Hopper’s submissions to the Annual Philadelphia Water Color and Print Exhibitions in 1939-41.
Location: Hamilton Auditorium in PAFA’s Historic Landmark building
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA
*Free; no reservation required.*
Information: firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-972-2022
Next Wednesday, March 26, I’ll be in Shelburne, Vermont, talking about my work with commentator Fran Stoddard and another Vermont author, Tracey Campbell Pearson. This event is the second installment in a Community Conversation Series with Vermont Authors that’s co-sponsored by the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Farms, the Pierson Library, and All Souls Interfaith Gathering (ASIG). The focus of the conversation on March 26 is ART.
Of course I’ll be talking about my take on the work of Edward Hopper, and Tracey will be discussing her work as the writer and illustrator of a multitude of children’s books — the most recent of which will be “the Elephant in the Room”!
As for Fran, we expect her to exercise her usual artistry in finding the commonalities between two seemingly disparate authors, and between Edward Hopper in Vermont and Elephant’s Story. Please join us for an engaging conversation, in ASIG’s beautiful facility overlooking Lake Champlain.
Community Conversation Series with Fran Stoddard
Wednesday, March 26
4:00 – 5:00 p.m.
ASIG / 291 Bostwick Farm Road / Shelburne, VT
ART, with authors Bonnie Tocher Clause and Tracey Campbell Pearson
See the series poster, below — but note that the session on “NATURE” has been rescheduled to April 2.
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.
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.
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.]
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!
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)
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. This 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.
At Auction: $300,000 – $500,000
In an Exhibition: Priceless!
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
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!