My Edward Hopper Talk at Norman Rockwell Museum, Part 1

Stephanie Plunkett, the Deptuy Director and Chief Curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA invited me to give a talk on July 31 about Edward Hopper as part of the impressive exhibition she organized, Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator (through Oct. 26, 2014). Here I am standing in the middle of the exhibition in front of the Museum's wall-sized mural of Hopper's famous oil Early Sunday Morning. 

We had a great and enthusiastic turnout for the talk. Someone who wasn't able to make it to Stockbridge asked me if I would post the slides I used in my talk and re-tell some of the points I made. As I showed 48 images, I'll break the presentation up into three installments.

Hopper had to support himself for two decades by doing illustration work for magazines until his painting career really took off. The exhibition shows Hopper was a skillful illustrator.

My talk started by comparing Hopper's oil Cape Cod Evening  with two of his illustrations. In this oil you get a sense that Hopper loved to present details, but you always know which details he liked best. In his illustration work, that's not always the case. I also picked this oil to start with as it shows Hopper's penchant for giving us the unexpected. How many other paintings are you likely to see where the humans get upstaged by a Collie?

His monochrome drawing shows the sense of light and shadow we know from Hopper's oils.  But unlike his paintings, Hopper only focuses on the center of his page (probably at the insistence of his publishers).

In his Tavern Topics cover he fills in the entire frame of his composition and playfully abstracts the shapes of his background. Unlike his paintings, light and shadow only happen in the foreground.

I picked the oil below by Hopper because it was the most story telling of his paintings. Exactly what's going on we're not sure, but Hopper loads his foreground with feeling by focusing our attention on the strong blast of late afternoon sun and dramatic shadow.

Hopper's Cape Cod Morning shows him framing the space around his figure and playing up the contrast of an inside space against the out of doors. He imbues each of these spaces with their own distinct personality.

Here's Hopper sitting in front of the studio in S. Truro, MA that he designed and had built using his wife Jo's inheritance (Jo's in the background).

We value Hopper because he saw with such fresh eyes. I believe one of the attractions of Cape Cod for him was it had largely been untouched by earlier painters (unlike the well-painted coast of Maine). His mantra seemed to be: find the overlooked but important thing. Wanting seculsion he picked the then very remote shores of S. Truro to build the studio he occupied for the next three decades (see white arrow). 

To reach Hopper's studio you travel down a winding overgrown dirt road.

Here's the studio sitting atop the ridgeline of the last sand dunes before you hit Cape Cod Bay, seen from the top of his sandy driveway. Note the rise at the far left side of the photo.

This is a painting I made during my 1st residency at the studio in 1983. Then the shrubs and trees were shorter, now they've grown so tall they largely obscure this view.

Here's Hopper's oil from 1930, Hills, South Truro that's now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Compare the silhouette of the dune in the upper right of the his painting with the outlines in the above two illustrations. You realize Hopper had fallen in love with this particular spot and would choose it to build his studio four years later. I feel his oil is sort of a "love letter" to the place. The arrow below marks the exact location that would hold the studio.

If you advanced closer to the above dunes and turned your gaze 90 degrees to the left, this is what you would have seen in 1931 when Hopper painted his wonderful oil The Camel's Hump now in the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY. He set up his easel right where his driveway stands today.

Sadly the distinctive "Camel's Hump" dune was destroyed some years later when an overeager developer bulldozed it away to dig a foundation for a new beach house. He had failed to secure building permits and was halted by the city fathers, but only after obliterating what had been a local landmark, and Truro's most famous piece of topography. 

Here's the studio in the early morning sun. Lovely isn't it. Years ago I had started showing my own landscape paintings in an art gallery in nearby Wellfleet. The owners of the Hopper studio came in and bought two of my oils. They kindly invited me to come tour the studio and ended up inviting me to come and stay and paint in the studio. It was ironic as Hopper had been the big influence on me as a young painter. After two years of painting abstractions when I first began, seeing Hopper's amazing evocations of dramatic sun and the poetry of his shadows persuaded me to drop what I was doing and begin working as a realist. 

The steps leading up to the studio-

The view out the 10' tall north facing window in the studio's painting room.

Hopper's easel next to the north window.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from staying in his studio was how particular Hopper was about what he painted. The panoramic views out the window in the above photos would have suited 9 out of 10 Cape Cod painters just fine. Not Hopper. He didn't bother with this view- to him it wasn't unique enough, didn't carry enough unexpected cargo. Instead he kept walking, searching widely for just the right source for his paintings.

With that in mind I dragged my French easel down the long path to Hopper's beach and made this vine charcoal drawing of the huge dune Hopper looked at each day. As heavy as my easel is, the point of view is so much more revealing about what is special about the Cape landscape.

Here I am in October of 2012 during my last residency at the studio, with the dune depicted in the previous photo at my back. I'm standing and grinning on the deck the current owners of the studio built. In Hopper's day a short series of steps took you right down to stand in the sand.

To be continued Wed., August 6.


  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this information and these photos and paintings with us. It adds so much to our appreciation of Hopper's work and yours. I am reminded of a book I read on Andrew Wyeth, where he talked about the places he painted and remarked that he could spend the rest of his life painting one particular hill. I read that statement about 25 years ago, or more, and have never forgotten it. It has encouraged me to look closer and spend time with the land that interests me and understand it as a changing thing that has a story to tell.

    I have learned much from your blogposts and am very appreciative of the information and insights you share. Can't wait to read the next two installments!

  2. Janice thanks for your comments. And for mentioning what Andrew Wyeth had to say. Artists are in the busiiness of noticing important things that others have overlooked. Wyeth, and Hopper, return again and again to the same few basic images yet always find something new to tell us. In that way they are wonderful teachers.


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