Poison Ivy's Enduring Beauty

Late in September  we often take a painting trip to Cape Cod, sometimes to stay and work in the Edward Hopper studio in Truro. As we live in the mid-Atlantic area where summer lingers, the trip north is often our first big hit of Fall. Nothing looks as startling as the burning reds you see that time of year on the Cape Cod dunes. Trouble is, it's poison ivy. It's beauty is of a deep oily burnished red. You have to appreciate from afar. Above is a sample of that tricky little plant I took last Fall in Eastham, MA, the town where Edward Hopper painted his gorgeous oil Route 6, Eastham that I discussed in my previous post. 

I can think of other kinds of beauty that you can't just run out and embrace. Green plants can stare at the sun all day. If we try it, it can blind us. So instead we look at it obliquely, appreciating it by watching how it shines on objects and casts long shadows. Like sunlight, the same sort of attraction can hit you when you're looking at the work of a truly great artist. It can be a little overwhelming.

For me Edward Hopper is like that. Years ago he was a guide for me, leading me out of a confused swamp of abstract paintings I was doing. I saw the sense of light he could paint and I just had to shoot for similar results. It led to lots of paintings of victorian style houses that I'm extremely proud of. Years passed and I came to feel too confined by imitating Hopper directly. So I made a decision to do paintings whose recipe couldn't be found in the Hopper cookbook. That said, I still find Hopper's paintings seductively beautiful and look at them a lot, just like the rust and ruby foliage of Cape Cod's autumnal poison ivy. 

On our way home from the Hopper studio last Fall we stopped in at the Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum. It's a place with a great permanent collection and perhaps the wackiest layout I've ever seen in a museum. Just try not to get lost.

Here's a William Bradford, Arctic Sunset, an oil from 1874 from the RISD Museum. I like it in part because it reminds me of the huge winter ice formations that would form in my neighborhood on the shore of Lake Ontario. As kids we'd play all over them, but one had to be careful not to slip and slide into the freezing waters. My neighbor's dog Gigi did just that and drowned. Afterwards we kids realized our parents' warnings to be careful on the ice weren't just idle talk. 

Bradford's painting relies of the giant ice formations for much of its strength. But the artist was sharp enough to design into his composition a contrasting rhythm in the shapes of open water slicing through the foreground ice. 

While we're on Cape Cod I paint my brains out and my hard-working wife Alice takes a well deserved break from her job at the mental hospital. At night we do the real tourist thing and go eat in one of Provincetown's restaurants. Our favorite is Napi's. Below is one of the restaurant's resident cats,  greeting customers for the dinner hour.

And here's a picture of Alice getting blown away by a blast of wind off Cape Cod  Bay. That's Hopper's studio in the background. Old Hopper picked some pretty nice real estate for himself, didn't he.

And here's another painter I love but who I try not to imitate, George Inness. This is In the Berkshire Hills, oil, 1877-78, another painting we saw on our swing through the RISD Museum. Inness had mastered a technique of dry brushing some of his edges- that is, letting tiny dots of paint spill out onto adjoining areas of color. It gives his work almost an instant atmosphere. He could handle this beautifully, but there are some contemporary painters who take this method and go hog wild with it, making paintings that are atmospheric and mechanical looking at the same time. 

I love Inness. At his best, and I think this one in the RISD Collection is a good example, he could blend together a sense of massive weight and scale, feathery textures, moving clouds, and poignant sunlight. This is the sort of painting one can study for hours and I recommend that artists do just that. We can learn from Inness without having to be Inness. 

Here's a photo Alice took of me on that same painting trip to the Cape. It's in the little town of Wellfleet by the rickety Uncle Tim's Bridge that takes you across an inlet in the harbor. I've just finished painting for the day and we're probably headed to Provincetown to go out to dinner. As you can see, I'm having a terrible time, intensely suffering for my art.


  1. Thanks for the highlights of your Cape Cod adventures- I can't help going weak in the knees when I see your photos of the Hopper house and studio. And your observations about loving but not trying to be our art heroes are spot on. As you probably can guess, I love Inness too and my charge is to paint my time and my places informed by my love of his work but not smothered by it.

    Happy New Year Philip!

  2. Hi Deborah- heck, where would we be now without Inness and the others like him who lit the way. It would be an OK world, but not nearly as rich as the one we find ourselves in. If it's hard to negotiate our way with influences from the past, well, we're no strangers to difficult challenges.

    I've looked at your website just the other day as it happens and thought highly of the work you're doing. Good luck with it.

  3. Hi Philip,

    Happy New Year! Thanks for sharing. Good to see you in Wellfleet; I showed at the gallery across from where you're standing for 7 years. Nice little town. Also have to agree about dining on the Outer Cape. Napi's is good; there are many quality places to eat in P'town. You've whet my appetite for the Cape experience--literally. As for Hopper, I'm working on internalizing your credo of moving away from the Hopper style that so appeals to me. It is hard to get something out and recognized as one's own when the audience wants to focus on the visual connection to his work.

  4. David- you put your finger on a real artist's dilemma. I am convinced each of us has a different gift to offer the world. And a big part of our job as artists is to work our way towards find out what it is.

    In addition to Hopper, Wolf Kahn (an artist I have a lot of respect for) has built up a large following over the decades. I've wondered if a number of younger or less known landscapists do some Kahn-like paintings partly because there are collectors out there who want that "look" but don't want to pay a lot for it. That's not a terrible compromise to make for awhile, and it might keep them afloat as painters. But over the long run, it could short circuit one's journey as an artist.

  5. So it becomes a critical matter of deepest discernment. We KNOW with certainty that we're drawn to the forms of expression we see in the artist who inspires us. And we also know that many, many people also are moved by those images even after all of these years. The question is: Who are we as artists in relation to those forms? What exactly do they say to us? And how do we then connect to the truest version of what WE are trying to say, in a form that expresses it in greatest purity? It's natural to start with what we know best; but is it right for us? Apparently not.

  6. David, you are chewing on an interesting bone here. Guess the solution is to have an ongoing relationship with the strengths of the past artists we admire, but also be a little bit uncomfortable with how their shoes "fit" our own feet.

    Years ago when I was in grad school I was deeply taken by John Constable's work and studied it, copied it, etc. Yet at the same time I was also always a bit troubled by Constable's brownish color. Looking back I think my discomfort with some of his choices was a good thing, keeping me from marrying myself to his paintings.

  7. Hmmm. Good thing for your wife, eh? :-)

    Seriously, I think I get what you're saying. Hopper has somehow expressed a deep sense of melancholy in his solitude, often represented in the disconnection of his figures (which some argue he really wasn't as interested in painting as the shapes around them). He did not seem to have a good relationship with Jo or really even with his male friends. They held up both ends of conversations, or so it sounds.

    I really feel the silence he communicates, but I think his personal unhappiness and frustration makes that quiet unsettling in a way he didn't get. It feels less joyful than he may have intended--and that's a way I don't relate to his world. His beauty feels disconcerting, where I'd rather share peace and contentment. That may have been HIS intent too, for all I or anyone really knows.

    Paintings like "Route 6, Eastham"--and others unpeopled--come much closer to capturing that than, say, "Summer Evening" or "Cape Cod Evening."


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Candid Shot In My Studio Even Before My Morning Coffee

Charles Burchfield Exhibition at Montclair Art Museum

23 Years Later: Allen Memorial Art Museum