An exhibit of summertime impressions
MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine - We came to see where Edward Hopper painted. He spent four summers here, from 1916 to 1919. He walked the island, stopping to make small, spontaneous pictures of the ocean and landscape. About his time here, Hopper said, “Maine is so beautiful and the weather is so fine in the summer - that’s why I come here to rest and to paint a little too.’’
We got off the ferry, grabbed coffee at the Carina Grocery, and headed up Main Street. We made our way on dirt roads lined with beach roses and on trails through cathedral woods of spruce and balsam fir. We went looking for the cliffs at Blackhead, for the waves crashing at Gull Rock, for the neat peaked roofs of Monhegan Village - all captured by Hopper in thick paint and loose brushstrokes. As it often is, it was too foggy to see, so we spent the day wandering in the drizzle, imagining that everything is exactly as it was when Hopper was here.
The exhibition “Edward Hopper’s Maine’’ opened at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art on Friday. With about 90 paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints, the show is a broad representation of Hopper’s work over nine nonconsecutive summers in Ogunquit, Monhegan, Rockland, Portland, Cape Elizabeth, and Pemaquid between 1914 and 1929, when he turned 47. There is also a room of paintings, mostly seascapes, made by Hopper’s contemporaries John Marin, Rockwell Kent, Marsden Hartley, and George Bellows. The painter Alex Katz designed the installation of the Hopper pictures.
Last week, with the show’s catalog as our guide, my girl- friend and I and our two dogs drove up and down the coast to see what Hopper saw.
Ogunquit 1914 and 1915 Hopper had recently returned from France and settled in New York. Uninspired, he came to Maine.
He stayed at Mrs. Daniel Perkins’s boardinghouse on Perkins Cove, a tidal basin that functioned as both fishing harbor and summer art colony.
According to the catalog’s essay by Carol Troyen, a Hopper scholar, many of the Ogunquit paintings were “conventionally picturesque.’’ Things got more interesting when he turned his back on the shore and painted the buildings.
“Rocks and Houses, Ogunquit’’ and “Road in Maine’’ are two of the great paintings from that first summer.
“ ‘Rocks and Houses’ is so wacky,’’ said Kevin Salatino, director of the museum. “It is almost as if Hopper is perversely suppressing the picturesque.’’
The summer of 1915 was cold and foggy and there was not much opportunity to paint outside.
Monhegan 1916 to 1919 Monhegan is 10 miles out to sea, not even 2 miles long, and not quite a mile wide. The island is gouged by the surf, bound by rounded lichen and seagull-covered basaltic headlands, and dotted with shingled cottages and tidy kitchen gardens.
European explorers stopped here in the early 1600s and established fishing camps and trading posts and artists have visited summers since the mid-19th century. Hopper came with Bellows and another painter, Robert Henri.
Hopper painted outside on Monhegan, on small panels he could tote around the rugged terrain. This was unusual for him and according to Salatino resulted in a series of “brilliant and evocative pictures.’’
“The Monhegan paintings are these claustrophobic fragments of nothingness,’’ Salatino said. “The forms, the cliffs, and the rocks are isolated, dramatically painted with a brilliant sense of color, but no clarity. It was as close to abstraction as Hopper ever got. They were so ahead of their time.’’
Rockland 1926 After two summers in Gloucester, and a trip to Santa Fe, Hopper returned to Maine. He was now married and had had some success in New York selling his etchings. He was becoming known for his paintings of out-of-fashion architecture and views of the city at night.
Hopper and his wife, the painter Josephine Nivison, stayed at a boardinghouse in town. He spent the summer painting steam-powered beam trawlers, lime quarries, and railroad tracks - mostly strange watercolor paintings that exist as explorations of form and color.
“Watercolor painting became Hopper’s medium for real experimentation,’’ Salatino said. “He painted those trawlers from every possible angle until he exhausted their potential as a subject.’’
Portland, Pemaquid, Cape Elizabeth 1927 and 1929 In the summer of 1927 the Hoppers drove up the New England coast. They based themselves in the village of Two Lights on Cape Elizabeth, just outside Portland.
In Portland, Hopper painted the Custom House and the Morse-Libby House from the perspective of a casual stroller. Both buildings are standing almost just as they were that summer.
On Cape Elizabeth Hopper focused on lighthouses, which at the time were depicted on postcards but were not the subject of fine art.
“Lighthouses are cliché now, and it’s largely because of Hopper,’’ says Salatino. “It was radical at the time to take a humble structure and make it iconic.’’
“Captain Upton’s House,’’ painted that summer in Two Lights, is considered by many to be the masterpiece of Hopper’s Maine work. It is owned by the entertainer Steve Martin, who contributes a charming essay about the painting to the show’s catalog. He describes returning home after time on the road, turning on the living room lights, and seeing the painting:
“In Captain Upton’s House, much information is immediately known: the big white residence, the monumental lighthouse, the sunny day, the hillside; and even though the sea takes up less than a hundredth of the canvas, it’s clear that the house is on the water. The scene appears very still. Time spent with the painting reveals remarkable touches that seem to me quite bold for a realistic work. I was startled when I eventually focused on the five angled plates of glass in the lighthouse reflecting an afternoon sun. From left to right, one is a dark blue-gray, showing a dimmed sky. The next is a stroke of unbroken paint as white as the lighthouse itself - pure glare.
“The next is an unexpected pane of bright orange, a refracted sun; then a darker orange, and then darker still as the glass wraps around the tower. A gifted narrator with pen or voice could not tell a more thorough story of an afternoon sun than Hopper does with this color wheel of lighthouse glass.’’
Last week, at the Bowdoin museum, I stood in front of “Captain Upton’s House’’ with Salatino and Diana Tuite, Bowdoin’s Andrew W. Mellon curatorial fellow. The painting was hanging alone on a grand wall, which had recently been painted a rich caramel, a color Katz picked.
At first glance the painting appears to be complete, and precisely rendered. Look closer, and it is all unfinished lines and foggy, vague impressions.
“Hopper was really a 20th-century impressionist,’’ said Salatino. “He learned a lot in Paris.’’
Tuite said the windows are her favorite Hopper windows. “I like how inscrutable they are compared to other Hopper windows,’’ she said. “That strange figure that you know is there but that you can’t quite make out.’’
“You can see why Hollywood cameramen obsess over Hopper,’’ Salatino said.
After Maine In 1930, the Hoppers spent the summer in Truro, the first of 37 summers there. In 1934 they built a house on the dunes, the only house they ever owned.
Hopper came back to Maine only once, in 1933, and it was to visit, not to paint.
In a 1962 interview (he died in 1967), Hopper said this about his summer studio on Cape Cod: “I chose to live there because it has a longer summer season. I like Maine very much, but it gets too cold in the fall. There’s something too soft about Cape Cod that doesn’t appeal to me too much.’’
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at www.jonathanlevitt.com.