Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Conversation between Monet and Edward Hopper


Here's a painting I've always loved, Monet's oil Bathing at Grenoulliere from 1869. In it Monet seems transfixed by the ambient light that fills the partly shadowed foreground. It is so rhythmic I almost feel a little dizzy looking at it.

I first ran across it in 1971 when I was in my MFA program in painting at Indiana University. It was reproduced in one of the textbooks I read for an art history class on 19th century painting I took  

Monet was alive when Hopper lived in Paris and the two could have met (they didn't, at least not literally). But if you look at the some of the work the young Hopper was doing during his stays in Paris, you realize Hopper had indeed had long "conversations" with Monet's paintings. He intently studied the older painter's ideas. In particular, Hopper drank up the French Impressionist's sense of lightened overall tonalities and how he played them off against just a few dark accents. 

Here's Hopper's early oil Le Point Royal from 1909.


To me it always seemed Hopper is a profoundly color sensitive artist, an aspect that often gets lost in the usual comments about his work delving into themes of loneliness and isolation. Whether or not Hopper was painting solitude or bustling activity, he could find more different versions of a color to tell his story than you can shake a stick at. In his river painting above look at the range of color intensities he finds for his oranges. They range from almost neutral grays in the water to a dazzling ochre tinged warmth in the facade of the orange building. 

Hopper knew color as well as he did partly because he looked long and hard at the previous masters of color, people like Monet. 

In the fashion of Monet, Hopper's early work borrowed the broad handling and working his paint wet-into-wet. He did it very well in my opinion. In the States Hopper had studied with William Merit Chase and with Robert Henri, both of whom extolled using a big brush and moving quickly over the surface with a minimum of spelled out details. 

Funny thing about Hopper, and one of the things I personally find so fascinating about him, is how much he changed over the course of his long career. Here below is a watercolor from 1926, Adam's House.  There is still a heightened sense of brilliant light pulling the scene together, but what's new is the crispness of his forms, with lots of straight lines and sharper edges throughout the painting. In many ways it has moved away from his earlier dialogue with painters like Monet, but not entirely.





Beneath the surface, Hopper's still that French-inspired colorist. Look at how many different shades of white and off white he inserts into his light drenched foreground. I believe almost no one paints bright sunlight as well as Hopper. He achieves a richness of the bright light rather than something glaring or harsh. It's the range of color temperatures he manages to paint that both ramps up the power of the light and simultaneously softens its feeling. It's totally yummy.

A quick story about the above Hopper watercolor. While it's of a house in Glouscester, MA, the piece itself is in the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas. I was at the end of my graduate school program in 1972 and was applying for college teaching jobs. I flew to Wichita to interview for a position at the state univerisity there. This was my first job interview ever and to say I was nervous is to put it mildly. One of the things the search committee was charged to do in addition to interviewing me was to sell me on living in Wichita, so they drove me around all the pretty parts of town and took me to the art museum. 

I was feeling stiff and completely self conscious as we all walked around the Museum together, so much so I don't remember their Collection other than that it was pretty good. Hopper's Adam's House, was the complete exception. I marched right up to it and just fell into it. As great art will, looking into its elegant pattern of sunlight and shadows sent a wave of calm and energy over me. Finally able to relax and invigorated,  I turned to my interviewers and announced I could see myself living happily in Wichita.

As it turned out they did offer me the job, though I ended up taking another offer at a college on the West Coast instead. But I never forgot that moment with Hopper's watercolor. Years later I would see it again in a big Hopper show back on the East Coast and made a point of reintroducing myself to it. It smiled back at me and said yes, it remembered our earlier meeting out in Kansas. Maybe great paintings are like elephants, they look you in the eye and seem to never forget you.





4 comments:

  1. I saw that Monet in the National Gallery a few years ago. You really get a sense of how shocking the potency of the light they painted was as you walk through the different galleries leading up to that time period. Brown, brown and some more browns until about 1860, then BAM! Monet turns the lights on. That bottom right hand corner of the Monet reminded me a lot of Joan Mitchell too; I'm sure she was a big fan. Great reading about your connection to the Hopper, too!

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  2. Great post Phil. Those early Hoppers really spoke to me as a young painter trying to figure things out. The Monet you show has some wonderful moves in it that are worth a close look. You can really see the thinking of a great perceptual painter in how he realizes form by adjacent shapes of solid color.

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  3. Francis, thanks for your comments. Yes, it is great living on the East Coast in that you can see ultra- top notch historical shows at the art museums. Sometimes it seems like one could make a full time job out of just going to museums. I used to live out in the middle of nowhere (the desert in Washingotn State, and the lack of museums and galleries was a real problem. I hate the congestion of the cities, but with that comes some real perks.

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  4. Frank, thanks. "...he realizes forms by adjacent shapes of solid color." Exactly! Mark my words, this Monet guy is going to be famous one day....

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