Edward Hopper’s reputation is a long story of praise by faint damnation. “His limited vision is good, but it is not enough,” wrote Louis Mumford in 1933; “Visually speaking, one may follow Hopper on the pedestrian level; following [John] Marin, one must risk one’s neck in an airplane.” Clement Greenberg, in 1946, wrote that Hopper “is not a painter in the full sense; his means are second-hand, shabby, and impersonal.” In ARTnews in 1970, John Ashbery noted of Leland Bell that he “likes [Hopper’s] moods but not the painting.” Even in these pages, in 1996, Michael J. Lewis has written that Hopper “is one of those artists whose paintings often suffer from close study.”
If an angel seemed to help Sargent’s brush fly, some dumpy devil sat ever upon Hopper’s. As a student in Paris, Hopper copied Manet. Hilton Kramer wrote in 1964 that “he deliberately and painstakingly expunged this alien elegance in the interests of a native subject matter—and a native emotion—which the prevailing Gallic pastiche could hardly accommodate.” In effect it was a dual problem of technique and temperament. Having long supported himself as a illustrator, Hopper was inured to a workmanlike but not inspired technical vocabulary. On top of that, by the 1920s something had become embarrassing to Americans about the pursuit of French flair in the handling of the brush. It was a convenient coincidence, if not necessarily a happy one, that Hopper’s inability to paint something like Manet’s Un bar aux Folies-Bergère (which foreshadows Hopper’s meditations on urban alienation) suited a zeitgeist in which an attempt to do so would have been regarded as ersatz.
The problem remained, for the above critics as for this one, to reconcile Hopper’s undeniable painterly achievement with his wooden facture. While a typical female figure in a Hopper is less satisfactory than a typical window jamb in the same picture, such infelicities end up not mattering much. One key to understanding why: technique can be acquired from scratch, but composing a picture requires innate taste that can be cultivated but not supplied. A teacher of the flute once related to me that she could remediate any fault in a student except lack of rhythm. Something similar seems to be true about art concerning visual composition. Most aspiring artists acquire technique and then forevermore struggle to compose. Hopper’s extraordinary case was the converse, in that his technique never reached a level that one would envy, but his compositions tended to redeem any shortcomings of execution, no matter how glaring. The wholes are so much greater than the sum of the parts that the outsize gaps between the two can only be explained as one of the mysteries of art.
Such is evidenced by “Edward Hopper & Cape Ann: Illuminating an American Landscape” at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It concentrates mostly upon landscapes produced near the museum in the 1910s and ’20s. (Some of the architecture depicted is still standing, and can be sought out.) The painted figure, for which Hopper has been the target of deserved scorn, remains almost entirely out of view. The gathering of New England vistas has a cohesive effect, displaying Hopper’s enormous feeling for land and architecture as the particular luminosity of the region bathes them.
The center of the gallery containing the exhibition, its proverbial heart, has been given over thematically to Josephine Nivison Hopper, the wife of Edward and a painter herself. Jo and Edward met at the Art Students League as pupils of Robert Henri, whose 1906 full-length oil of the young Miss Nivison is on display near Edward’s depiction of her at work from three decades later. Also included are a handful of Jo’s studies from Cape Ann, which show subjects in common with Edward’s work of the same time, and an undated self-portrait.
The ladies who currently dominate the profession of art history are hungry for stories of women whom they can pull from relative obscurity, perhaps even (but not necessarily) actual neglect, and promote to a status comparable to that of their male counterparts, particularly if in the process they can take the men down a few notches. Elliot Bostwick Davis, the curator of “Edward Hopper & Cape Ann” and the author of its catalogue, is no exception. Speaking on her behalf, the museum claims that she “recasts Jo Nivison’s role of model and muse to the producer of Hopper’s distinctive style.”
There is much to criticize about that catalogue. It switches bewilderingly between past and present tense, and between known fact and speculation bordering on historical fiction. (“With his relationship to Jo formalized by marriage,” writes Davis, “Edward may have discovered newfound confidence to return to subjects he had tried his hand at the previous summer.” The connection between one and the other is never explained. The qualifying “may” repeats throughout the copy, holding together Davis’s thesis like so much subjunctive wheat paste.) Davis splices excerpts from The Art Spirit, Henri’s seminal book on painting, into the narrative of the Hoppers’ travels and creative discoveries as illustrative, but sometimes they relate so obliquely that she might as well be quoting the I Ching. Henri himself is portrayed as a failed radical and a predatory, sexist buffoon. In a long digression Davis describes the relationship between Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, offered for “greater context” despite there being practically no connection between them and the Hoppers except that their marriages both took place in 1924.
There may be a case for an exhibition that explores the Hoppers’ partnership, but “Edward Hopper & Cape Ann” wasn’t the appropriate opportunity. The inclusion of the above material was a distraction to the exhibition, which without the veritable shrine to Jo would have been a cut gem, and a calamity for the catalogue, which sprawled into unfounded storytelling and discussion of matters that postdated the sojourns at Cape Ann all the way into the 1960s. Worse, however crucial Jo may have been to Edward’s professional success, she was an inferior painter by far—and he was no technical wizard. During their forays to Cape Ann in the early 1920s, Edward seems to have tried Jo’s wet-into-wet watercolor method, which reliably caused her own paintings to succumb to overwork and no more suited him than Henri’s encouragement to paint with bold strokes of oil. He wisely abandoned it. Whatever her role as producer, his style was not among what she produced. If anything, her self-portrait indicates that his style wrecked hers, an American fauvism in the vein of Maurice Prendergast (though not so able) that withered as she adopted Edward’s precision.
To confine further discussion to what this exhibition should have been—a tight selection of Cape Ann cityscapes and landscapes—the work on offer shows Hopper forming by dint of labor his emotionally cool repertoire of forms. Though I characterized his technique as workmanlike, workmanship is a virtue, and if nurtured it tends toward mastery. The improvement between the landscapes of the teens—Briar Neck, Gloucester from 1912, to pick something (the place is actually called Brier Neck, if you care to visit)—and such later works as Cape Ann Granite (1928) is striking. Briar Neck is serious but not distinguishable from a great run of American impressionism. Cape Ann Granite is a wholly new kind of picture, a partial subordination of touch to the needs of depiction that looks neither French nor related to what was going on in American Scene painting, which Hopper disdained.
The Mansard Roof, a watercolor from 1923, is one of the few pictures of Hopper’s that might be characterized as exciting. This is as close as he came to Sargent’s flourish, with ultramarine shadows scribbled charmingly on the side of the manse, and orange awnings that look like they’re about to blow away in the crosswind. The closer chimney, rendered perfectly in two shades of terracotta, shows Hopper’s commitment to simplicity of form beginning to pay off. Nevertheless the trees on either side of the house are nearly expressionistic.
Hopper, clearly, could turn on the juice when he wanted to. But he didn’t trust that kind of liveliness, and when he contained it he produced the pictures for which he’s best known. Hodgkin’s House, an oil from 1928, is an icon. A hard afternoon North Shore light hits the house, viewed corner-on, sideways like a right-hand slap. The resulting shadows are luminous blue-grays. The green of the lawn is picked up subtly in a few of the windows. The backlit pales of the picket fence are hypnotic in their delicate rhythm across the canvas. Admittedly, the paint application is scratchy, parts of the background are hard to understand, and the clouds are weird lozenges. But the totality possesses such force that it’s not clear that “fixing” any of it would improve the painting. It turns out that the pedestrian level, from which we view Hodgkin’s house and, metaphorically, Hopper’s work as a whole, is all the height that one needs for great art.