The first time I met an Edward Hopper picture in person was in my early twenties. I had discovered Edward Hopper years before as a teenager, when I read a review of a retrospective of his paintings which came through Washington, D.C. My sophomore year of high school had finished days earlier. The best way to explain my state of mind then was that it rhymed with Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’, the famous portrayal of urban angst and solitude which was splashed on top of the Washington Post article reviewing the show. That night, I crawled in rush hour traffic to the Borders Books at Tysons Corner as the summer sun set over the smog of Route 7. I found a Taschen book of Edward Hopper’s paintings and flipped through it for an hour.
The beautiful Edward Hopper watercolor at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta was once known as ‘Cape Elizabeth’. However, it was posthumously changed to ‘Foreshore-Two Lights’ (1927). Two Lights is a rocky point with two lighthouses at the tip of Cape Elizabeth peninsula, Maine. So beautiful is it that Jo Hopper wrote about ‘Foreshore-Two Lights’, ‘This one of his best sea pictures [sic], calmly dramatic but making no claims.’
Foreshore-Two Lights: A Zen Purity
‘Foreshore-Two Lights’ deserves such adulation. It has rich, dark tones and an almost Zen painting purity.
Like Hopper’s last oil paintings, the composition is pared down to basics. There are no ships, people, lighthouses or structures. The picture simply portrays the meeting of land and sea. It has Japanese-like brushstrokes of layered chocolate and charcoal brown in the rocks. Splashes of blue lead the eye to the navy blue water beyond.
Hopper as Abstract Artist
There is an almost complete absence of the geometric forms common in Hopper’s other watercolors. This and the use of blocks of color makes it reminiscent of Mark Rothko and his fellow Abstract Expressionists.
‘Foreshore-Two Lights’, and other pictures like it, lend credence to the theory that Hopper was significantly influenced by abstract art of the 1920’s and 30’s. This despite his frequent protestations to the contrary. In turn, Hopper was a source of inspiration for Abstract Expressionists from the 1940’s onwards.
Steve Martin and the High Museum Atlanta
Luckily for Atlantans, unlike watercolors at many other museums, ‘Foreshore-Two Lights’ is displayed on regular rotation. It sits alongside watercolors by artists like Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth.
Larry Miller, Works on Paper Specialist at the museum, says that one of his roles is to share as much of the museum’s art as possible. This maximizes the chances that visitors to the museum develop a special connection with a picture and thus with art as a whole.
One regular visitor to the museum in the past was Steve Martin. Martin performed in Atlanta in his early days as a comedian. Indeed, he may have been inspired to become a collector by such visits. It’s conceivable that, for Martin, ‘Foreshore-Two Lights’ was that one special picture.
As Larry Miller, an artist in his own right, says, ‘The museum’s job is to bring quality to people. It’s not always easy to do that. But artists like Hopper make it a lot easier.’
Which museum do you think fulfills its role of ‘bringing quality to people’? How?
It’s a bare-knuckled, ten hour drive on the interstate from Sarasota to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. We pass roaring wildfires and navigate snarled traffic. But even that isn’t enough to keep me awake.
An empty Starbucks in the middle of Georgia offers relief in the form of twenty ounces of scalding coffee. My mother offers to drive. But she is uninsured and I am in debt.
She tells bad ‘knock, knock’ jokes until the caffeine kicks in. We finally hit Atlanta in time for a beautiful summer’s dusk.
Atlanta: A Rapidly Growing Small Town
Atlanta is a rapidly growing city with a small town feel. Mammoth freeways give way to two-lane backstreets. Here, antebellum establishments like Mary Mac’s Tea Room serve country fried steak, pot likker with cornbread and squash soufflé in ornate dining rooms.
The high-tech campus of the Centers for Disease Control sends epidemiology sleuths to outbreaks around the globe. While across town the World of Coca-Cola museum teaches the world to sing.
The High Museum of Art: An Atlanta Museum
The High Museum of Art is the perfect representative for Atlanta in the art world. It is friendly and unpretentious. Yet it is housed in a stunning new Renzo Piano designed building.
The High Museum’s permanent collection of eleven thousand works is relatively small but it hosts world-class exhibitions from the Louvre and the Michelangelo Museum. Back in the 1950’s, the High Museum’s Director, Reginald Poland, was desperate to add a ‘good representative’ Edward Hopper picture ‘of museum significance’ to the High’s permanent collection.
The High Museum’s Search for a Hopper
Beginning in 1957, Poland corresponded regularly with the Rehn Gallery in this regard. ‘I have you very heavy on my mind for a Hopper painting,’ wrote John Clancy o Poland on August 9, 1957. Clancy was Frank Rehn’s one-time assistant and director of the Rehn Gallery after Rehn’s death. ‘But it has been almost impossible,’ he continued, ‘to pry one from a private collection. You see, the bulk of his work is museum owned or in the hands of persons who are going to give them to museums.’
‘It has been almost impossible to pry a Hopper from a private collection.’
Poland stressed in one letter that the High was not in the market for ‘Girlie Show’, a 1941 Hopper painting of a nude woman in a burlesque show. Perhaps such a picture was too salacious for Atlanta’s population at the time.
Poland then had the Hopper watercolor ‘Vermont Meadow’ shipped to Atlanta for his perusal but did not purchase it.
The Search Ends
Finally, on July 8, 1959, Poland wrote to Clancy, ‘We like the Edward Hopper watercolor “Cape Elizabeth” very much and would like to have it, if there is any way possible for us to do so.’
The first installment for the picture was paid on October 21, 1959 and, almost two years later, on October 6, 1961, Poland sent the final installment. His accompanying letter finishes, ‘We appreciate your patience in awaiting the balance. As you know quite well, while Museums have great art they do not have great funds!’
The title of ‘Cape Elizabeth’ was posthumously changed to ‘Foreshore-Two Lights’ (1927) to reflect its documentation in Jo’s Record Book. Two Lights is a rocky point with two lighthouses at the tip of Cape Elizabeth peninsula. Jo wrote about ‘Foreshore-Two Lights’, ‘This one of his best sea pictures [sic], calmly dramatic but making no claims.’
We’ll meet ‘Foreshore-Two Lights’ in the next installment. Was Jo right?
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota is the state art museum of Florida. At the time of my visit, it is undergoing major renovations. Sadly, its Hopper watercolor ‘Jenness House Looking North’ (1934) is packed deep in storage and unavailable for viewing. Instead, I pore over the watercolor’s correspondence and papers. These offer a fascinating view of Hopper’s life in Cape Cod.