Theater & art

Frame by Frame

In Bechtle’s photorealism, altered perception in details

WATERVILLE, Maine — It’s amazing how little it takes, sometimes, to alter our perception of what, lazily, we had called “reality.” A power outage. A slight hangover. The last pages of a suspenseful novel. Morning coffee in an unexpectedly empty house. Any one of these things can make the world suddenly look different.

For me, this painting by Robert Bechtle, the great photorealist painter from Northern California, crystallizes this apprehension of the friable thinness of so-called reality. It reminds me — not as an intellectual notion to be toyed with and then put aside, but in a visceral way — that the distance between conventionally accepted reality and what we think of as “altered states” is often just a matter of subtle gradation, or tint.

Bechtle’s best known work is from the 1970s, the decade when photorealism emerged as a new genre in painting. By the time he made this work, in 1997, it was already clear that his plainspoken but delicate images — streaked with an almost impersonal melancholy, like salt spray on seaside windows — were at once more poetic and more enduring than the works of any of his photorealist peers.


Many commentators had already connected Bechtle with Edward Hopper, and so it is with a click less of surprise than of sympathetic recognition that we register the homage to Hopper’s 1930 masterpiece, “Early Sunday Morning,” in this painting’s title, which is “20th St. — Early Sunday Morning.”

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Both paintings show dawn light hitting a row of urban houses. The building in Hopper’s painting is on flat Seventh Avenue in New York. Its façade is perfectly parallel to the picture plane, so that it functions almost as a barrier, psychologically roping off whatever human activity may be taking place within. It’s almost as if there is a kind of meniscus stretching from one end of the picture to the other.

Bechtle’s row of houses, by contrast, is in sloping San Francisco, and painted at an oblique angle. This produces all kinds of plunging diagonals — not just the perspective lines of the road and the visible buildings (cropped well below their rooflines), but the dark shadows of the unseen buildings across the road.

Reality, at this angle, suddenly seems porous — open to penetration.

The longer you look at the painting, the more there is to notice. But what my eyes continually return to is the shadow cast by the tree on the white wall behind it. Just as, in Hopper’s painting, the windows with their green and yellow shades suggest the unknowable lives of the buildings’ occupants, Bechtle’s white wall is punctured by several doors — thresholds to interior worlds.


When you get up close, the tree’s shadow (uncannily reminiscent of a night-time photograph by Robert Adams in his great series, “Summer Nights”) is speckled with red and blue. It’s a realistic optical effect, for certain. But it’s also — is it not? — a kind of fairy dust.

Early Sunday Morning

by Robert Bechtle

At: Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine. 207-859-5600, academics_cs/museum

Sebastian Smee can be reached at