Hopper’s ‘House by a Road’ (1940), in the Arizona State University Art Museum, is exactly the type of boxy home which Frank Lloyd Wright was trying to replace with his homegrown architecture. The Victorian-era house is eerily open. Its windows are agape, their striped curtains fluttering in the breeze. The front door is wide open but affords no glimpse of the interior.
Despite its strange openness, the first thing you notice about ‘House by a Road’ when you see it in person is that the house is quite pretty. The picture has sharp lines and a clean composition. Doily-like curlicues line the gutters, giving the house a feminine appearance.
‘Is the house abandoned? Is it just dark during the day? What’s going on here exactly?’
Although it is pretty, the house is ‘isolated on this rough patch of ground that doesn’t look like it’s been cared for at all,’ says Heather Lineberry, Senior Curator at the ASU Art Museum. The picture asks questions which remain unanswered. ‘Is it abandoned?’ ASU Museum tour guides ask visitors. ‘Is it just dark during the day? What’s going on here exactly?’
Looking at the picture, the eye is drawn towards the left, not to the right as is naturally the case. This leads you on a journey between the house and its backyard shed. On the way to the backyard is a screen door, the only inviting entrance to the house. What more innocent entrance than a screen door? A door which doesn’t lock, which lets light and air in. It speaks of summer days, lemonade and childhood.
The backyard is overgrown but friendly. It backs onto a forest less sinister than the normal Hopper forest, whose gloomy ‘dark woods’ the artist and friend of Hopper’s, Brian O’Doherty, described as an integral part of the ‘Hopper furniture.’
Perhaps ‘House by a Road’ is Hopper’s version of Taliesin West, where the front of a house intimidates and deters through its very openness. Walk around the side, though, through the unkempt, cricket-infested grass and you’ll find that you were welcome all along. That this house is someone’s home, that it could be yours.
Hopper lovingly depicted these old New England houses in countless of his oils and watercolors. During his time, this turn-of-the-century architecture was widely reviled as overwrought and bombastic. In contrast, a subtle, appreciative warmth pervades Hopper’s renditions. ‘Mr. Hopper is fascinated by the melancholy relics of the Age of Innocence,’ wrote contemporary art historian Suzanne LaFollette, ‘the hideous and soundly built structures of a period when American architecture was at its lowest level; houses with fanciful facades and mansard roofs, standing proudly on rather than in the landscape as though they disdained any intimate relation with it.’
‘The sweltering, tawdry life of the American small town, and behind all, the sad desolation of our suburban landscape.’
Hopper himself, writing about Charles Burchfield’s pictures, described in them ‘the sweltering, tawdry life of the American small town, and behind all, the sad desolation of our suburban landscape…Our native architecture with its hideous beauty, its fantastic roofs, pseudo-Gothic, French Mansard, Colonial, mongrel or what, with eye-searing color or delicate harmonies of fading paint, shouldering one another along interminable streets that taper off into swamps or dump heaps – these appear again and again, as they should in any honest delineation of the American scene.’
At other times, as in ‘Lime Rock Railroad’, which we’ll see at Princeton University, the houses take on more sinister qualities. What all of Hopper’s houses, and indeed his depictions of architecture in general, have in common is their personification. Hopper’s buildings are pretty, devious, melancholy and proud. They invite the viewer to get to know them better and to explore their surrounding landscapes.
These journeys are a joyful aspect of Hopper’s pictures. They turn us into children, once again exploring a new world.
Which Hopper picture makes you feel like a child again?