Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis Mama

My journey into the heart of the South begins the next day. Like the rumbling FedEx road trains, I am following the Mississippi south to Memphis. The river glistens in the rainy twilight, its massive breadth a reminder of its huge catchment area.

Memphis is home to Elvis Presley, FedEx and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. I arrive into town late at night. There are only two dining options still available. Sitting next to each other in a vast, empty strip mall parking lot are Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken and Church’s Chicken. I trust the world and choose Gus. The woman at the drive-through window says I have a handsome accent. I reply that hers is beautiful too, especially as it is delivering me hot chicken and a biscuit.

I trust the world and choose Gus.

Memphis Mama

The next day, I pick my mother up from Memphis International Airport. She has flown in from Australia to join me for the next two weeks as I head through Alabama, Florida and up the east coast towards Washington, D.C.

As a teenager, we took epic road trips together from Washington to Kentucky, South Dakota and New England. These trips inspired my love of the road. It was only fitting that she join me for this journey as well. I greet her at the luggage carousel. She is tired and jet-lagged from multiple flights but happy to be in Memphis. She is a die-hard Elvis Presley fan and is looking forward to a visit to Graceland as much as the Hoppers.

Memphis Brooks Museum

The Memphis Brooks Museum sits in verdant Overton Park, which is filled with gallivanting orioles and blooming flowers. A smell of malted barley wafts around the museum from a nearby brewery, just as it did in St. Louis.

Memphis Brooks has the feeling of a municipal museum, funded by the city and friendly to roaming packs of school-age children. It aims to be encyclopedic, like Nelson-Atkins and SLAM, but it is pint-sized compared to these behemoths, with only eight thousand pieces in its permanent collection.

A Real Hopper?

Amongst them are artworks purchased with the Eugenia Buxton Whitnel Bequest, a $375,000 gift in 1973 from a local photographer. Over the following four years, this money funded an orgy of spending on American art from the early twentieth century. Featured artists included Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, realist and portrait painter Walt Kuhn, Reginald Marsh, and Stieglitz gallery artists like Milton Avery, Arthur Dove and Charles Demuth.

Cape Cod Barn Edward Hopper Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Cape Cod Barn

The Bequest’s last purchase, for $33,000 in 1977, was of Edward Hopper’s ‘Cape Cod Barn’. Hopper scholar Gail Levin placed  this in the appendix of her Catalogue Raisonne as a work of uncertain attribution. This decision has led to ongoing controversy within the museum. The painting is unsigned and it is not included in Jo Hopper’s painstakingly accurate Record Book of Edward Hopper’s paintings and watercolors.

When the museum bought the picture from Paul L. Herring, the museum’s director, John J. Witlock, insisted on original copies of correspondence attesting to its attribution. This correspondence consists of handwritten notes dated 1974 on the back of photographs of the picture, signed by Lloyd Goodrich and John Clancy, then director of the Frank Rehn Gallery.

Goodrich, in his note, wrote, ‘Its similarity in subject and color to Hopper’s “Cape Cod Evening” make it likely that this picture was painted about the same time, 1939.’

Cape Cod Evening (1939) Edward Hopper
Cape Cod Evening (1939)

A Smiling Hopper

‘Cape Cod Barn’ has a passing resemblance to the wonderful ‘Cape Cod Evening’, which we’ll see in Washington, D.C. There is a male figure in both paintings sitting stooped on a porch, looking down into the overgrown grass with his right arm extended.

The color schemes of the two paintings, however, are remarkably different. ‘Cape Cod Barn’ is dominated by a light blue palette, with none of the romantic light of dawn or dusk which make paintings like ‘Cape Cod Evening’ special. In addition, the figure in ‘Cape Cod Barn’ is smiling, a rarity in Hopper’s world.

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