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On Edward Hopper‘s Cape Cod, a darkening world in luminous light

A view of Highland Light in North Truro. Edward Hopper spent 40 summers in Truro, in love with its sparse landscape and bleached light. There he defined a counterpoint to the alienating isolation of his most famous urban scenes.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

TRURO — There’s little enough left of Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod that it can feel futile to go looking, and sometimes, futility gives way to unwelcome surprise. The prim white clapboard house that the artist and his wife, Jo, built on the sandy bluffs overlooking Fisher Beach in 1934 hunkers low in the sweep of dune and beach shrub and long grass — the timeless Hopperscape, writ large. But within easy eyeshot, the 21st century intrudes: an 8,000-plus-square-foot slab of concrete and glass built by a Florida developer in 2008. It looks more like an office park than a vacation home, and the locals agreed. After years in court, with the municipality at one point ordering it torn down, its owners were finally granted the right to move in in 2016. Neighborhood cocktail parties seem unlikely, indeed.

That’s the thing about Hopper’s Cape, where he spent nearly half the summers of his life, right up to his death in 1967: It’s a fluid place, prone to change and change again. When he and Jo first came here in 1930, much of it was an expanse of undulating dunes and grassy flats, the forests cleared decades before. (On first seeing it, Hopper described South Truro’s “fine big hills of sand — a very open almost treeless country.”) The Cape of Hopper’s “Hills, South Truro,” 1930, with a view from behind a farmhouse over railroad tracks and rolling green hills to the sea, is nowhere to be found. The hills are long grown over with thick forest, and the tracks long gone. His “South Truro Church,” desolate and exposed to the sun’s hard glare on his canvas, burned down long ago and was rebuilt; it’s now surrounded by lush growth. Even Highland Light, a towering brick sentinel looming over the open sea on the Cape’s eastern shore, is nowhere near where Hopper captured it. It was moved 450 feet back from the eroding sands cliffs in 1996, lest it tumble hundreds of feet to the sea below. Sands shift; buildings come and go. But that northern Cape Cod light, luminously austere, is eternal. It’s what Hopper painted more than anything else.


Edward Hopper's "Hills, South Truro," from 1930.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Why any of this matters has much to do with how we think of Hopper — or how I think of Hopper, anyway. As an oracle of the merciless churn of modernity, he arrived right in time to question the expanding systems of a world remade. Industrialization had created rapid urbanization, and with it the promise of jobs that would lift the masses from rural poverty. Hopper’s cityscapes, the works for which he’s best known, provide a clear view into that failed promise: “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” from 1928, may not have the popular appeal of “Nighthawks,” but the bulk of its indifferent cityscape, bleached by sun and lifeless but for a lonely figure loping into shadow, is as emblematic a Hopperian scene as I’ll ever see. A year later, the world lurched into the Great Depression, making Hopper’s scenes of urban desolation bleakly prescient. All the sacrifices to mass urbanization in the name of prosperity — room to move, air to breathe — seemed, suddenly, a particularly cruel joke.


Born in 1882, Hopper grew up in Nyack, N.Y., 30-some miles from the city. His first trip up the coast was in 1912, to Gloucester, long a haven for artists. (Fitz Hugh Lane, Winslow Homer, and Childe Hassam established Rocky Neck as a creative colony well before Hopper’s arrival.) Over the next many summers, Hopper would bounce around New England from Vermont to Maine. In 1930, Jo turned them toward Truro for good, and there they would stay, from late spring often well into October, until the end of their days.


Views of Fisher Beach, where Edward Hopper lived for 40 summers. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Cape provided respite from the city for Hopper, as it did for so many fleeing the confines of asphalt and brick as the promise of spring melted into the oppression of summer heat. But for Hopper, it also provided refuge of another kind. As European modernism took hold on this side of the Atlantic, the art world splintered: Early American avant-gardistes like Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley had leaned into the European ethos, presaging the upheaval of abstraction in the years to come.

Hopper showed his work at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, an American floodgate-opening for such artists as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Some of Hopper’s contemporaries, like the jazzy Stuart Davis, were wowed; he was nonplussed. (Ironically, Hopper sold his first-ever piece at the show, an uncharacteristically jaunty sailing scene.) Resolutely unfashionable, Hopper took the Armory upheaval as an opportunity to disappear more deeply into himself.

He was “so deaf to all faddish chatter that he can, without strain, with no stunting exercise of will, remain himself,” wrote the painter and critic Guy Pène du Bois in a 1931 monograph. No truer words were ever written. With the advance of modern sensibilities came retrenchment in the form of American Scene Painting, a style where the celebration of rural life and traditional values was aimed to serve as a bulwark against the shock of the new. (Members included the eccentric ruralists Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry). The movement tried to claim Hopper, but he would have none of it. Hopper’s allyship extended as far as Jo, and nowhere else.


Edward Hopper, "Highland Light," 1930Edward Hopper/Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Louise E. Bettens Fund

That’s not to say Hopper didn’t struggle with Modernism and its interpretive eye on a rapidly changing world. “Maybe I am not very human,” he told an interviewer in 1962. “What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Ah, but it’s where he landed that counts. He may not have been fashionable, but he was far from the regressions of the American scene.

Hopper’s urban scenes, whether streetscapes or interiors, bubble with alienation, a simmering, tangible dread. However pastoral his Cape scenes may have been, they shared with his urban work the collective anxiety of a world in rapid upheaval, making him more modern than most. He said so much with so little, the simple forms of the world intensified by his composition and treatment of light. For almost 40 years, he and Jo would spend month after month up above Fisher beach. But it’s a handful of paintings made during their first summer that most move me (that’s a qualified “most”; Hopper made hundreds and hundreds of works there).


Edward Hopper's "Corn Hill (Truro, Cape Cod)," 1930Edward Hopper/Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Mary and Sylvan Lang Collection

They have an air of foreboding, of a world out of sync: “Hills, South Truro,” is one. But none captivates, or chills, quite so much as “Corn Hill (Truro, Cape Cod).” A sharp ridge of angular cottage rooflines are perched high above grassy dunes that appear as in motion as the sea. Hard light sears; desolation reigns. Above, the sky seems sharp and deadly. You can see in Hopper, surely, a unique kind of Modernism — humanity chafing against nature, a distant early warning.

But let’s not let content overshadow form. Hopper’s sharp angularity, light carved into shadow with merciless precision — do you see the cut, the houses’ facades cleaved neatly from their sides by the sun? — speaks of an intensive formalism, an avant-garde eye for the elemental, a scene portioned into parts and re-assembled in paint. Whether in the city or by the sea, Hopper painted less place than feeling, of a world unsteady with the weight of change.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.