A Discovery About The Cleveland Museum of Art's Edward Hopper
In this oil Hopper painted the very spot where he would build his famous studio on Cape Cod. It's a sort of painted love letter to where he and his wife Jo would spend half of each year for the last three decades of their lives.
The painting is Hills, South Truro from 1930 that's in the Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art (the first art museum with a truly world class collection that I visited regularly once I'd discovered it as a budding art major at Oberlin College back in the late '60's).
Earlier this month when I was sitting in Edward Hopper's studio on Cape Cod I took a break from the paintings I was doing and absentmindedly began flipping through a book of plates of Hopper's work. As Hills, South Truro came into view it hit me that I was literally sitting right in the middle that painting. I've always thought it one of Hopper's masterpieces, and the one that comes closest to capturing the slightly other-worldly look and feel of Cape Cod back when Hopper first moved there.
Hopper's view is looking due west out at Cape Cod Bay from a vantage point several hundred yards inland. The quirky and distinctive silhouettes of the tallest dunes clearly had captured his artist's imagination. Against the unexpected bends in the contours of the dunes, he contrasted the ever so straight tracks of the rail line leading out to nearby Provincetown. The bed that once held the railroad tracks is still visible today as one drives up the approach road to Hopper's property, so one can locate Hopper's vantage point pretty closely.
What tipped me off was the pyramid-shaped dune that is the 2nd from the left form on the horizon. It was known as a local landmark and called affectionately "the Camel's Hump." The present owners of the Hopper studio had told me the story. Some years back an over eager would be builder on his own had taken the Camel's Hump out with a bulldozer without getting building permits from the town of Truro.
A neighbor called to complain and the town authorities halted any further construction. One can hike up to the spot today and see all that's left- the huge gouge taken out of the hillside where the builder had planned to raise his new structure.
Below is a painting Hopper did titled The Camel's Hump in 1931 (now in the Collection of the Munson- Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY). It was painted from what would be the shadowed farthest valley at the right side of Hills, South Truro looking back toward the left side of that painting. In Camel's Hump, what is now Hopper's driveway is the cooler colored strip of sand that runs from the left to the right side of painting about 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of the canvas.
Compare the patterns of dark foliage and light sand on the uniquely shaped hill on both paintings and you can see it's the same spot. I have drawn (OK, rather crudely I admit) an arrow to the spot in his original painting where his studio now stands.
The view Hopper painted is now obscured by the trees that have gradually filled back in from the near total deforestation of Cape Cod by the late 19th century's hunger for firewood and lumber. But below is an oil I did back in 1983 on my first residency in the Hopper studio. I was standing closer to his studio than the vantage point he had chosen for his painting. In '83 the trees were much more present than in Hopper's 1930 view, but now they totally block one's vision.
Here's a photo taken two weeks ago standing at the top of Hopper's driveway looking toward the studio (that's his garage just below it). Note the similarity of the upward slope at the far left of the photo, my '83 oil, and in Hopper's '30 oil.
The art historian Gail Levin in her Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography writes about when Hopper painted in Truro in 1930-
Hopper's oils that summer began with Hills, South Truro which he told Guy du Bois was "done almost entirely on the spot" when "mosquitoes were terrible."
Levin describes the painting and mentions Hopper's practice in those years of working outdoors on oils over repeated sessions at the same time of day to keep the light effect more constant-
On July 14 Jo described Hills, South Truro in progress as "a canvas he's grouching over- rather a beauty- hills and hills on over to the sea that he's working on from 6 - 8 P.M."
I find that reference to Hopper painting Hills, South Truro mostly from direct observation fascinating. He made one big change, swinging the sun over to shine on the north side of the roof of the foreground house instead of letting it illuminate the other side. He lied a bit.Why did he do this?
Hopper wanted to make a painting that pulled together the so often dis-united elements of the landscape he actually saw. You could say he wanted to paint in a way that expressed the emotional wholeness and inner excitement this scene evoked for him. He knew that one of the challenges for this painting was going to be to make the human-made architecture connect with the nature-made hills by the sea. Probably he first tried painting the diagonals of the roof with the left side emphasized by highlights and found it just didn't feel right. So he adroitly moves the sun to highlight instead the right side roof whose diagonals more closely mimic the most prominent diagonal on the far Camel's Hump.
I've written in other blog posts about another famous Hopper oil from Truro, Rooms by the Sea, where he moves the sun to shine in a way it never does to make a more expressive painting. Radical changes like this are one of the things so endearing to me about Hopper. He paints with such authority because he's got a firm grasp of the mood and expressive tenor he's after.
Degas was famous for claiming an artist needed the cunning of a criminal to paint a good painting. Well, Hopper had it.