Friday, August 12, 2011

The Wadsworth Atheneum's Edward Hoppers

What's this detail?

I won a contest! Last time this happened I was about six and won five dollars for my "Space Robot" costume ( a cardboard box with pipe cleaners for antennae) in my town's annual 4th of July parade.
This time around I've won a membership to the first public art museum in the U.S., the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art up in Hartford, Connecticut. 

The Atheneum has a cool history. It was built in downtown Hartford on the site of the Daniel Wadsworth family mansion with funds from that family and holding lots of their original collection. Their main building is a medieval looking castle (if you're going to be the oldest art museum why not look the part? Perhaps Susan Talbot, their Director, might consider jousting tournaments as a fund raising event). I get a kick out of older art institutions, partly because I teach at MICA (America's oldest continuously degree-granting art school. PAFA up in Philadelphia probably has the mantle of being the actual oldest school). 

When an art museum starts collecting early, you tend to have a pretty impressive collection. The Atheneum for example has a world class Hudson River School collection, something near to my heart. But back to the mystery print...



The Atheneum had a clever idea to post a detail out of a work of art on their Facebook page and challenge viewers to name the piece and the artist. At the top of this post is the "clue" they provided yesterday morning. Now normal people have diverse interests and probably wouldn't have any idea. Me, I don't have that problem.

As long time readers of this blog know it was looking at Edward Hopper's work that persuaded me to switch to realist painting instead of working abstractly. Hopper spoke to me on many levels and I made a point to get to know his work well- really well. So I had an immediate suspicion this detail was taken from one of Hopper's subway car etchings.

Turned out it was Night on the El Train from 1918. Hopper worked for twenty some years full time as an illustrator, but on his own time he feverishly worked at a long series of etchings like this one. So much of what he would later do in watercolor and oils was prefigured by these black and white little gems. I took Hopper's etching work extremely seriously for I knew just as it had helped him develop the vision that would later flower in his paintings that it would help me with my work as well. 

The Atheneum has a number of fabulous Hoppers, not the least of which are the following watercolors.When I had my first (of thirteen) residencies up in Hopper's Cape Cod studio starting in 1983 I made discoveries about Hopper's watercolor practice. He liked to stretch his watercolor paper not on a drawing board but over stretcher bars like the ones used for stretching canvas. Up in his attic I found just such a ready-to-go stretched piece of watercolor paper. Probably he liked using the stretcher bars because of their light weight (his watercolors tended to be fairly large and drawing boards that would have held them would have had to be big and heavy). 

What delighted me was the extra attention to detail he showed. When you take have paper stretched over stretcher bars it's pretty translucent and sunlight shining on its backside will show right through the paper, throwing off your tonal judgements. So Hopper had carefully tumbtacked layers of a 1954 sports section from the New York Herald Tribune to the back of the stretchers to block out the sun. It was such a modest solution to his problem that it utterly charmed me. It felt as if he might return at any moment to start working on the piece. I left it there for him.

Here are three of the Hopper watercolors in the Atheneum's Collection. 


This is Marshall's House, 14 x 20 from 1932, two years before he built his studio in S. Truro. MA.  It must be one of his Cape Cod scenes. The painting has a marvelous orchestration of color. Notice the way all the yellows and ochres and held down in color intensity so that his three different brighter reds on the roof will stand out.


This might be one of the most popular of Hopper's watercolors, Captain Strout House, Portland Head, 14 x 20" from 1927.  It's an absolute masterpiece. Look at the wild way Hopper has the watery blue horizon at two distinctly different levels in the painting. It should look ridiculous but instead it knits the painting together. See how if you connect the two differing water levels with a straight line, you get a diagonal angle that runs exactly parallel with the white fence railing in the foreground.



Here's Hopper's Methodist Church, Provincetown, 25 x 19 3/4" from 1930. That's eighty one years ago but you can still see exactly the same view as Hopper painted if you stroll down Commercial Street in Provincetown. While his version is an accurate bit of reporting, it isn't without some artful invention. Hopper wanted the diagonal sloping roofs to dominate the painting so he amped up the contrasts in those forms. In comparison, the edges and contrasts in the lower section of the church steeple have been softened and held back so as not to compete with the main actors he's placed in his foreground.

Here below is my own painting, Edward Hopper's Studio, oil, 14 x 21" from my first residency there in 1983.



And this is a painting I did last week based on an on-location pastel study I did in the studio. It's Edward Hopper's Easel, oil on panel, 7 1/2 x 10", 2011.







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