Edward Hopper and Cape Cod
For New England fans of Edward Hopper, this summer presents a wonderful opportunity to see his work and learn more about him. An exhibit titled “The Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator,” is traveling from The Whitney Museum and will be on display from June 7 through Oct. 26 at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Also, in August, a rare sketch by Hopper, an untitled male nude, will go on display at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. That sketch is a counterpart to a gift the museum received in 2013, an untitled female nude sketch by Hopper.
Of all the New England destinations associated with Hopper, from the coast of Maine to the shores of Gloucester to the beaches of Cape Cod, the town of Truro near the tip of the Cape is arguably the one most identified with him. Hopper arrived on Cape Cod with his wife, Josephine, in 1930 and they would spend almost half of his 84 summers there, in their classic Cape house with a large window overlooking Fisher Beach. Right up until his death in 1967, the Cape is where he would go to paint what became some of his most famous works, including “Cape Cod Sunset,” “Corn Hill,” “Seven A.M.,” and “Gas.” In total, he painted more than a hundred oils and watercolors depicting the Cape, including one in 1946 titled “October on Cape Cod” that sold at auction last year for $9.6 million.
For Cape Codders, pointing out windswept dunes, beachfront homes, towering church spires, and sweeping landscapes that almost certainly inspired some of Hopper’s works has become a sport of sorts. As for what inspired Hopper the man, nobody knows that better than Gail Levin. Perhaps the foremost expert on Hopper, and the author of “Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography,” “Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist,” and “Hopper’s Places,” Levin will be at the Stockbridge museum July 24 for an evening lecture. The Globe caught up with her recently for a conversation about Hopper and his seemingly endless fascination with Cape Cod.
Can you explain the roots of Hopper’s Cape Cod passion?
It’s totally from his wife, Josephine, who had been going to Provincetown, and was one of the new women of Greenwich Village. She was acting with the Washington Square Players. She was a lot more bohemian than Hopper, who was pretty conservative. He didn’t drink. He didn’t chase the floozies, as she said. They ran into each other over the years after art school. And they ran into each other on Cape Ann in Gloucester in 1923. He was a commercial illustrator and they planned a sketching trip together. She got him to paint in watercolor and he painted a sea captain’s house in Gloucester. He won a purchase prize and that led to his solo show at the Frank Rehn Gallery. He’s thrilled and wants to go back and paint in Gloucester with Jo, but she wants to return to Provincetown. They argued and Hopper won the decision by offering to make Gloucester their honeymoon.
So when did they first make their way out to the Cape?
They first rent from 1930 to 1934, on Cobb’s Farm. They eventually buy some land and build a house, designed by Edward with just three rooms, including a small bedroom and a studio/living room that overlook the bay. Edward would allow Jo to paint anywhere but the living room, his studio, which had the best light. This was in South Truro, the bay side.
Most of Hopper’s works are not of people but of sweeping vistas, and buildings that seem very isolated. Did they spend time in Provincetown much or mostly in the more rural Truro?
He wasn’t looking for the crowds in Provincetown. He insisted that he really only wanted to paint the sunlight on the side of the house. In the early years he was prolific, he loved the Cape and the beautiful light, the beautiful vernacular architecture, like you see in “Near the Back Shore.” He doesn’t really paint many pictures of rolling sand dunes. He was attracted to the architecture. He did only a few landscapes without architecture.
There is an endless fascination with trying to locate places in Hopper’s paintings, from homes to views to landscapes.
Jo’s maps that she kept are the best source (the maps can be seen in Levin’s book, “Hopper’s Places.”) She’s got a lot of the places, like the South Truro Post Office, Corn Hill, the North Truro train station, a place called Mrs. Scott’s house. These were on both sides of what was the New York/New Haven Railroad. A lot in South Truro, some in Wellfleet, all the way back to Eastham, and he did a filling station in Orleans.
Did he have a particular favorite place on the Cape?
His house. The sea was right outside his door.
Hopper once said, “More of me comes out when I improvise.” Did he ever struggle to find subjects to paint?
He had what you might call painter’s block, by the early 1940s. He feels he has painted everything. He won’t let Jo drive the car, but occasionally they’d go out and stop, and she would start to paint, and then he would, too. So they would paint side by side. She’s quite empathetic to his block.
Is it true he liked to paint from his car?
I read somewhere that one of the things Hopper loved about the Cape was the richness in the colors, how the blues are more blue, the reds more red.
They adored the nature of the Cape, the plants, they loved every living creature, they really knew the nature around their house. He’s not a painter of nature, but when he paints the grass, he really gets the green. It wasn’t just a summer place for him. He loved October. It’s a very intense light, the reflection off the water. Hopper was, of course, someone who grew up sailing. But he didn’t have his own boat, and Jo was afraid he’d sink or drown. But he did go sailing with friends. One painting, “Martha Mckeen of Wellfleet,” is named after the couple who took him sailing.
What would Hopper have thought of all the attention on his works today?
Hopper was not always very fashionable. I never dreamed he would become as popular as he’s become. He would feel very self-satisfied, especially his belief that realism would reassert itself.
Do you have a favorite piece?
Everybody asks me that. I love “Tables for Ladies.” Obviously I love “Nighthawks.” One thing on the Cape I find very interesting is the South Truro church painting. Jo Hopper’s painting of it, which she called “Ode to Sanctity,” it’s owned by the Truro Library, and people can go see that. She left it there in her will. But the South Truro church is burned down.
What stands out for you in his work?
I think the single figures and the couples. “Cape Cod Afternoon.” “Morning Sun.” “High Noon.” “Cape Cod Evening.” Those pictures, which are more than just architecture, people really respond to those. Hopper’s engagement with New England was very deep. Hopper had a piece of his soul tied to New England.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space. Doug Most can be reached at Doug.Most@globe.com.