Finding poetry in the commonplace
Edward Hopper’s interpretive paintings of everyday scenes continue to influence—and inspire—today
Edward Hopper saw Cape Cod as no one else did. The iconic American artist (1882-1967), who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1956, may be most famous for his 1942 oil “Nighthawks,” a New York evening scene, but his fascination with the rural Cape resulted in more than 100 well-loved works.
In both oils and watercolors, Hopper depicted the scenes he observed from his studio in Truro and from travels around Eastham and Wellfleet. When he ventured outdoors, the artist usually painted from inside his car, a 1925 Dodge that doubled as a sort of studio on wheels. Whether inside or out, Hopper is known for painting the scenes before him—landscapes, colorful homes and small town settings—slightly differently than how they appeared.
“What I wanted to do,” Hopper is famously quoted as saying, “was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” In 1934 the artist took a step toward that goal, building a summer home on Cape Cod whose sides could catch the sunlight he sought, and from which he could paint the same light glancing off other houses and hills.
Residents of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Hopper and his wife, Josephine, also a painter, chose a sand bluff overlooking an empty stretch of Fisher Beach in Truro for their sunny spot. Jo had been traveling to Provincetown during summers since she was a girl, and for nearly 40 years the couple continued to return to Truro to sketch and paint. The scenery of the Cape inspired Hopper, and his artwork in turn has inspired Cape Codders for decades.
Finding the places Hopper found and attempting to see them the way he saw them, has become a fascination for a number of the artist’s admirers. One of these is Fitchburg resident Charles Sternaimolo. A photographer and a Hopper enthusiast, Sternaimolo took it upon himself to track down many of these locations and to “recreate” Hopper’s oil and watercolor scenes through the lens of his camera.
According to Sternaimolo—who collaborated with Cape Cod LIFE to create the Past & Present photo series in last year’s Annual Guide—locating the buildings and vistas that Hopper painted several decades ago is a task with inherent complications: the first concerns the Cape’s landscape, which has changed drastically since Hopper’s time; the second, with how the artist transformed the scenes before him while painting them on his canvas.
“Hopper worked in this special time when the landscape was denuded,” Sternaimolo says, “after the trees had been lopped but before urbanization.” Indeed, many of Hopper’s works depict rolling hills and large swaths of land, but Sternaimolo says the exact spots can be difficult to recognize today, because many of those hills are now covered in trees.
It’s apparent from his work that Hopper took great notice of the bareness of the hills, and of geometry in general. In his paintings, he played over and over again with the interaction between buildings and the land, angles and shadows, and especially the light. Philip Koch, an artist from Baltimore and a self-proclaimed “Hopper nut,” points to Hopper’s ability to capture sunlight as one of his greatest strengths as an artist. “It’s dazzling and solid,” Koch says, “and no one nailed it like he did.” Pieces such as “Cape Cod Morning” (see pg. 20), “Ryder’s House,” and “House with a Rain Barrel,” speak beautifully to Hopper’s mastery of light.
A friend of the current owners of Hopper’s Truro home, Koch has the unique opportunity to spend time in the artist’s former studio, even paint on his easel. Recalling the moment several years ago when he first set foot in the room with the famous north-facing window, Koch recalls being struck by how different the room’s layout was from the way Hopper had painted it.
Hopper completed “Rooms by the Sea” from inside the studio and the piece is one of Koch’s favorites; it’s also his only source material to discern how Hopper viewed the room in his own mind’s eye. In the oil painting, which is currently on exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery, a white wall dominates the canvas with sunlight shining on it in a trapezoidal shape; outside, the powerful sea looks like it’s about to surge into the room.
Koch says the reality of the scene—the actual view from inside the studio—is a little different. “You can’t even see the water when you’re sitting down at the easel,” he says. “The ledge covers it. The sun shines in that painting where it never really does, and he moved the door to the other side of the room.”
After seeing Hopper’s studio, Koch began to notice many of the liberties the artist had taken with certain details in scenes he had painted—and that he could do the same thing in his own paintings, reassembling pieces in a way, he says, “that lets them talk to each other.”
“Hopper combined different perspectives of the same place,” Koch says, “because he needed a very special combination of ingredients to sound the right note. He lied about the little things in order to tell the truth about the big things.” According to Koch, Hopper’s larger “truths” are what make his work so resonant with people who live on, visit and love Cape Cod. With the help of creative compositing, Hopper set out to capture the essence of the places he painted, rather than their exact likenesses. As the landscape and the architecture of the Cape changes more and more each year, those who love this area appreciate the artistic “time capsules” Hopper left behind.
Sternaimolo says it is Hopper’s little lies that have made his job a little harder . . . and a lot of fun. While studying photography at Fitchburg State College, Sternaimolo took on a large senior project: finding the places Hopper had painted on the Cape, in New York and throughout New England, and photographing those areas. He worked on the project for three years and succeeded in locating more than 200 of Hopper’s scenes. He was aided in his search by locals he met in his travels and by journals kept by Hopper’s wife, Jo.
There are a few locations Hopper painted that Sternaimolo could not find. “There are two possibilities for those,” he says. “One is that those places don’t exist anymore; the other is that they never existed in the first place.” Sternaimolo likes the second theory better. He recalls the first time he discovered one of Hopper’s major “compositional lies.” He was on a drive—one that Hopper took frequently between Cape Cod and his home in Nyack, New York—and he passed a gas station with pumps he recognized from Hopper’s 1940 painting, “Gas.” In the painting, the gas pumps and the landscape are from a Cape Cod location, but Sternaimolo guesses that a building in the painting was from somewhere else, possibly New York. He gathers that Hopper merged the two locations in his mind, producing a representation of his own truth.
Wellfleet resident Lisbeth Chapman shows visitors how Hopper assembled these “truths” on guided tours of what she calls “Hopper’s Places” on the Outer Cape. Chapman’s two-hour tour brings visitors around Truro and Wellfleet, beginning and ending at the Wellfleet Town Pier, with stops at 30 locations that Hopper painted.
Chapman confesses that in leading these tours she is doing “exactly what Hopper didn’t want done”: she is explaining the differences between the way things were and the way they are today, both in the paintings and the landscape. “He didn’t want people comparing,” she says, adding that the artist’s conglomerate wholes are more than the sum of their parts. “It’s enlightening and fun though,” she says, “for artists and for people who are just curious.”
Had Hopper painted scenes exactly as he saw them, projects like Sternaimolo’s would likely be easier, but the work may not have the same life, the same resonance. “He had a way of finding rare angles,” Sternaimolo says, “and his tweaking made for stronger statements.”
Some artists, including Sternaimolo and Koch, look to Hopper’s work as a conscious inspiration for their own, but others with completely different styles also find in him a muse. Lucy Beecher Nelson, an art teacher at Falmouth Academy, paints with a more detailed focus than Hopper did, but she appreciates his style and marvels at the way he treated shadows. Beecher Nelson studied painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and has showcased her work in exhibitions across the country. “He painted like Hemingway wrote,” she says, “with as few adjectives as possible. He had a pared-down way of describing the world . . . and for him it wasn’t so much about the truth of the scene but about making something beautiful and interesting.”
Notably, unlike many artists who paint on the Cape, Hopper produced few images depicting the shore and the sea. For Hopper, it was the angles of the houses, the shape of the land, and the interaction between those forms that he found attractive and intriguing; to him, these aspects of the Cape held just as much of the region’s character as the beaches.
Finally, Koch says Hopper’s Cape Cod paintings can be looked at not merely as representative of this region, but of the country overall. “He had a willingness to search out the unexpected in the middle of the ordinary,” Koch says, “and his compositions strike a chord in viewers’ hearts. He taught generations how to feel more deeply, and how to find poetry in the commonplace.”
A resident of East Sandwich, Catherine Aviles is a student at Washington University in St. Louis.
Learn more about the artwork tours at hopperhousetours.com. In addition, Addison Art Gallery in Orleans continues a unique series in 2016 on local artists who have been inspired by Hopper. Learn about these “After Hopper” events at addisonart.com/afterhopper.