Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

Montgomery, AL



Edward Hopper: The Watercolors

January 29 -March 26, 2000


The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is proud to present the first major exhibition in 40 years of the watercolors of Edward Hopper (1882-1967). The exhibition, co-organized with the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, features 56 watercolors made between 1923 and the mid-1940s. These watercolors, on view January 29 through March 26, 2000, brought Hopper his first critical and financial success. (left: Eastern Point Light, 1923, watercolor, 14 x 20 inches, Private Collection)

Virginia M. Mecklenberg (senior curator at the Museum of American Art) and Margaret Lynne Ausfeld (curator at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts) have spent several years researching and bringing together the rarely seen watercolors of Edward Hopper from 15 private lenders and 18 museums.

Born in Nyack, N.Y., Hopper first became known for his etchings. He had painted since his student days at the Chase School, where he was a classmate of George Bellows, Guy Péne du Bois, and Rockwell Kent, but his artwork brought him little attention and for a number of years he made a living as an illustrator, a career he found unsatisfying and frustrating.

While vacationing in Gloucester, Mass., during the summer of 1923 he began working on watercolors at the suggestion of Jo Nivison, an artist who later became his wife. Away from New York and working outdoors in a medium that demanded quick choices, Hopper was at his freest. He drew from visually complicated subjects to create images specific to real locations, unlike the invented settings of his etchings and paintings of his urban artworks.

Capturing subtle and ephemeral shifts in the light and air of a particular moment and place, Hopper used the watercolors to convey the crisp New England landscapes, the dramatic perspectives and intense sunlight of Mexico, and the haunting vestiges of the Civil War in Charleston. Hopper repeatedly turned to lighthouses and Victorian architecture as symbols of the past. By setting these buildings adjacent to utility poles, railroad tracks, or other references of progress, he elicited a dialogue between past and present and alluded to change as a fundamental characteristic of American life.

The watercolors from the summers of 1923 and 1924 catapulted Hopper to fame. The Brooklyn Museum purchased The Mansard Roof after including it in their 1923 watercolor show, and all 10 paintings in a 1924 exhibition at Frank K. M. Rehn's New York gallery sold. Featured in this exhibition, The Mansard Roof (1923), a sun-washed pile of a house, fluid forms of foliage and shadows dance to the same breeze that billows the yellow awnings. (left: The Mansard Roof, 1923, watercolor over pencil, 14 x 20 inches, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museum Collection Fund)

In addition to his scenes of urban and small town America, Hopper was also recognized for his depictions of seaside architecture, including the magnificent lighthouses of the New England coast. Among them is a view of the Light at Two Lights, a site on the coastline at St. Elizabeth, Maine. "In these paintings Hopper portrays his tremendous empathy with these massive old structures -- marking their association with the communities who wrested their livelihood from the sea through backbreaking and dangerous labor. The monumental character of these images is a tribute to the courage and determination of these people and their personal histories", says curator Margaret Lynne Ausfeld. (right:Light at Two Lights, 1927, watercolor, 14 x 20 inches, The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, The Blount Collection)

Hopper visited Cape Cod for the first time in 1930 and he and Jo returned each summer to paint, building a modest house there in 1934. While the watercolors produced during the 1930s are less spontaneous, they exhibit a greater sense of compositional finesse and take on a modernist edge. Roofs of the Cobb Barn (1931) emphasizes the clean geometric forms and white-planes of the barn roof.

In his later watercolors, Hopper engaged the textured surface of the paper through drybrushing and relied less on washes. Cottages at North Truro (1938) illustrates this approach. It also unites two important Hopper themes, vernacular architecture and railroad references, in a complex and dramatic landscape.

By the late 1930s, his work was becoming more restrained in both style and method. Hopper exhausted the Cape Cod area for imagery, and he and Jo began traveling elsewhere for subject matter. Several of the late watercolors were painted in Mexico; Monterrey and the Spanish colonial town of Saltillo provided inspiration for Monterrey Cathedral, Saltillo Mansion, and Saltillo Rooftops, works from the summer of 1943. (left: Saltillo Mansion, 1943, watercolor, 21 1/4 x 27 1/8 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Geaorge A. Hearn Fund, 1945)

Edward Hopper's forays in watercolor ended with a trip to Mexico in 1946. Asked in 1960 if he gave up watercolor out of a preference for working slowly, he replied, "I don't think that's the reason I do fewer watercolors. I think it's because the watercolors are done from nature and I don't work from nature anymore."

A fully illustrated book, written by Curators Mecklenburg and Ausfeld, will be available for purchase in the Museum Shop.

Sponsors for the exhibition are the Blount Foundation and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is the final venue for this exhibition.

Read more about the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/23/10

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