Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Myterieous Beauty of Edward Hopper's Captain Strout's House


This is one of my all time favorite paintings, a watercolor by Edward Hopper, Captain Strout's House, Portland Head from 1927. It's in the collection of the venerable Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT (founded in 1842!). The light and color of the painting are amazing. Yet I always sensed there was something beyond that but I couldn't put my finger on it. I think this painting points to how playful spontaneity and unconscious thinking makes the art happen.

In our kitchen each year we always have a wall calendar that features Hopper paintings. One evening as I was scrubbing a frying pan I paused and glanced up at the calendar. That month featured a big reproduction of Captain Strout's House. My eye fastened on the far watery horizon and a mental alarm bell went off. The water to the left of the house was way higher than the water level on the right.  They didn't come close to lining up with each other. How could this be?

Looking a little longer I realized my eye liked the discontinuous levels of the water. It added a hidden syncopation to the painting. I was amazed I'd never noticed this before about the painting-probably because the disconnected levels of the water fit into the overall composition so perfectly. 

There's a skinny fence rail in the immediate foreground that most of us tend to pay little mind to. Notice how the rail slopes down diagonally from left to right. Then compare the two spots where the ocean disappears behind the walls of the house. These two water levels imply a hidden diagonal that runs exactly parallel to the sloping foreground fence railing. 

Hopper was famous for his long searches after just the right subject matter. Once he found this exceptionally good subject and viewpoint I bet he was chomping on the bit to do the painting. He painted this watercolor from direct observation, beginning by quickly drawing in pencil the angles he saw. His hand would have been guided by careful optical measuring but also pushed and pulled by the sensations the view was having on him. I believe he unconsciously altered the horizon lines to make them mimic the thrust he felt in the fence. I suspect he didn't notice the what he had done until later. He probably liked how this "accident" energized and made this landscape less ordinary. 

We can't know if my theory about Hopper's painting is correct. He was notorious for saying and writing almost nothing to explain his work. But we do have this glowing little painting. To me that matters way more.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Happy Birthday Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, oil on canvas, 1951, 
Yale University Art Gallery


Woke up this morning and realized it was the birthday of the artist who inspired me to become a painter. Edward Hopper (July 22, 1882- May 15, 1967). Many years ago as a teenager I had all the usual concerns of someone that age but visual art wasn't one of them. My parents subscribed to Newsweek magazine and as I thumbed through a copy I stumbled across the mysterious painting above. Though I'd never heard of Hopper I remember thinking to myself "Now THAT'S a painting!" A seed was planted.


Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 50", 1994.
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. A painting I made of a building in 
Wellfleet, MA just south of Edward Hopper's studio on Cape Cod. 
Without knowing Hopper, I don't know if I ever would have let
myself paint a subject like this.

It's ironic how someone you have never met can prove instrumental in shaping your life. Years later as a fledgling art student I rediscovered Hopper's work, fell in love, and changed from working abstractly to making realist paintings inspired by the glowing light and dramatic shadows Hopper painted.

Hopper's Rooms by the Sea was inspired by what the artist saw looking out one of the doors to the studio he built in 1934 on Cape Cod, MA. The Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana contacted me recently to discuss holding a show of some of the paintings I've made during my 16 residencies in Hopper's former painting studio in Truro, MA. I'm excited about this and am looking forward to the exhibit. It will probably be held in early 2017. The Swope is a particularly appropriate venue for this show as a keystone of its Permanent Collection since its founding is another Hopper Cape Cod painting, Route 6, Eastham.


Edward Hopper, Route 6, Eastham, oil on canvas, Swope Art Museum. 
A painting I have always loved. Hopper worked from a some buildings 
a few miles south on Route 6 of where I painted my oil above Cape Cod Morning.

The Hopper studio sits high up on a sand dune overlooking Cape Cod Bay. On a particularly glowering morning during one of my residencies there I took a walk down the long winding path Hopper used to reach the shore. Stopping to catch my breath I looked up and saw the studio from an angle I'd not noticed before.  On that cold morning it seemed to express something poignant about the man who used to live and work there. I made the drawing below from the spot. It reminded me of something out of Wuthering Heights.



Philip Koch, May 15, 1967,  vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2004.
The drawing has a lonely feeling to it so I chose the day
Hopper died for its title.


Hopper's work has survived him. By all accounts he was a shy and deeply introverted man. Some recall him later in life as often irritable, enough so that I am kind of glad I never met him in person.  But he shared the best part of himself through his paintings and for that I know I owe him a big debt of thanks.


Hopper in front of the Truro, MA studio he had built in 1934
from the 1960 photograph by Arnold Newman.

In other news:


A new book by Carl and David Little, Art of Acadia, has just been published. It's a 280 page hardback that provides a comprehensive art history of how Acadia National Park in Maine has influenced generations of artists. I am delighted to have my painting North Passage included in the volume. It is a painting done entirely from memory and imagination that's based on my dozens of painting trips to Acadia. Not a record of any specific spot it's more a tribute to what for me is the single most paintable spot of the East Coast
of the US. ( I am biased of course as my wife Alice and I honeymooned there years ago).