Friday, July 22, 2016

July 22--Happy Birthday to Painter Edward Hopper

If you love lighthouses, you probably know about the oils and watercolors of realist Edward Hopper. His painting of "The Lighthouse at Two Lights," completed in 1929, got lots of mileage in 1970 when it was chosen by the U.S. Postal Service to represent Maine's 150th anniversary of statehood. (It cost just 6-cents in 1970; oh how the price of a stamp has risen!)

The lighthouse Hopper painted, of course, is one of the twin towers at Cape Elizabeth. A website devoted to Hopper notes that the painting "symbolized the solitary individual stoically facing the onslaught of change in an industrial society." I'd like to think it simply represents Hopper's love for the beautiful Maine coastline and his fondness for its handsome and purposeful buildings.

Born on this day, July 22, 1882, in Nyack, New York, Hopper was the son of a merchandiser and a homemaker. Despite his parents' Baptist faith and no-nonsense attitude toward life, they recognized their son's talent and sent him to art school in New York City. Like many creative people, he struggled to find his identity and style while working various jobs, some of them he detested. Designing posters was not to his liking, nor was advertisement art.

In his off time, he painted. His medium at first was oils, but his watercolors were done during a period when he seemed to be infatuated with lighthouses--the 1910s through the 1930s.

"Squam Light" was the first, painted in oil in 1912. (above) As you compare it to his later lighthouse paintings, you'll quickly see how watercolor allowed Hopper to add details. But in this painting, everything suggests "mood." I can easily imagine myself in this painting...taking a walk and wondering if I should hurry to avoid the rain. And then I find this lovely scene down the sandy road! It's pastoral and marine, all in one.

Hopper later painted just the houses at the Annisquam Light Station. He had moved to Gloucester for inspiration and found plenty at Annisquam. It seems to have have launched his love for lighthouses. He also painted Eastern Point Lighthouse. (below) The sunrise over the point dominates, washing everything in a near-lavender hue.

Subsequent visits to Cape Cod and Maine inspired Hopper to continue painting lighthouses. Check out the selection of them below--

Hopper painted a few generic lighthouses. I wasn't able to identify this one above, though it looks somewhat like Tarrytown Lighthouse on the Hudson River. Hopper would have seen this one as he grew up in nearby Nyack. The rock foundation resembles that of Tarrytown Lighthouse, as does the shoreline. Here's a photo from 1910 for comparison. (Coast Guard)

Two other lighthouse paintings focused more on the sailboats. The lights in both of the paintings below appear to be Wood End Light Station on Cape Cod. In the second painting, it appears Hopper added a house and woman at a window and put a moody sky over the lighthouse.

Portland Head was a Hopper favorite. He painted several versions, sometimes providing enormous detail, as in the foghorn paintings below. He also painted the keeper's house and named the painting for Capt. Joshua Strout, the keeper during the years Hopper visited the site. Strout is a much-loved and well-remembered character at Portland Head Light. He had a loquacious pet parrot that knew all the business of the light station and would implore Strout to "turn on the foghorn" when the fog rolled in. I can well imagine Edward Hopper sitting at the table with Capt. Strout to have coffee, with Billie the parrot participating in the conversation.

I love the contrasts here--white tower and fog signal building, red roofs, brown rocks, and the black foghorn jutting seaward!

This is Capt. Strout's house, a duplex. His assistant lived on one side and Strout on the other. It's one of the loveliest keepers' dwellings in Maine. Hopper was smitten with houses!

Equally compelling for Hopper were the twin lighthouses at Cape Elizabeth. As with Portland Head, he painted several views.

Below is Capt. Upton's House. I love the gingerbread trim, a small and inexpensive appointment the lighthouse service was willing to add. The USLHE ethos was all about economy, but sometimes a small bit of decoration appeared.

Hopper undoubtedly knew the lightkeepers of Portland Head and Cape Elizabeth, as well as the nearby Coast Guard surfman. Having grown up around the water, he appreciated the solicitous and unselfish work of these men. He likely had free run of the light stations and surely shared coffee and conversations with the keepers on a regular basis.
Above is Hopper's 1930 rendering of Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod. It looks so much like the first view I had of the light station in the late 1970s. Here, the Atlantic lashes the cape with fury. Hopper may have stood on the bluff here overlooking the Clay Pounds and the slate gray sea and realized how imposing and important this lighthouse is. He loved the cape and all its nautical structures.

Man of the Year in 1956! Or, at least a cover guy. Note the small image of Cape Elizabeth Light in the background.

Edward Hopper died in New York City May 15, 1967. I vaguely remember hearing about his death in art class. I was in 9th grade that year and deeply involved in artwork. I did an series of cartoon caricatures that were put on exhibit in the school. (You might be surprised to know I won an award in June 1967! Everyone expected me to leave high school and study art. I chose education instead.)

Surprisingly, none of Edward Hopper's lighthouse paintings is ranked as "notable" by the art world. I suppose "notable" depends on the prism through which you view his work. (Lighthouse pun there---did you catch it?) I'd like to think all of Hopper's lighthouse paintings are notable. Obviously, the U.S. Postal Service thought so. The dozen or so lighthouse canvases he completed are definitely a body of work.

Would some art museum or gallery kindly put together a show--"The Lighthouse as Viewed by Edward Hopper."

I'll be the first one through the door on opening night!


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