It’s a stormy drive from Chapel Hill to Norfolk, Virginia. The Norfolk Hopper picture is in the Chrysler Museum. The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk owes its existence, just as the surrounding city does, to the military.
Norfolk is home to the largest naval base in the world. Norfolk’s miles of shoreline, blanketed by fog and lined by piers, bridges and inlets, have a distinctly military feel to them.
Uniformed personnel on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan fill my motel in Norfolk. At breakfast, a group awaiting a delayed flight enjoy a lazy breakfast in the lobby.
Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.: An Art-Obsessed Scion
Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. was the son of the founder of the Chrysler Corporation. Chrysler met and married a Norfolk native and gym teacher, Jean Outland, while serving in the Navy in World War II.
Norfolk was therefore a logical choice to house Chrysler’s enormous, eclectic collection of fine art. However, Provincetown, Massachusetts, just up the road from Hopper’s home in South Truro on Cape Cod, was its original home.
Chrysler lived in a rented bungalow in North Truro, in a style almost as frugal as Hopper’s. One neighbor of Chrysler’s said, ‘He acts like a millionaire but he sure doesn’t live like one.’
Chrysler’s father lured him into becoming president of the Chrysler Corporation’s air-conditioning subsidiary. However, Chrysler, Jr. was always more interested in art collecting than in automobiles and quickly left the family business.
Art played a divisive role for Chrysler from a young age. His prep school expelled him at the age of fourteen after he hung a nude Renoir painting in his dormitory room. Later, Chrysler provided financial backing for Broadway shows and bred horses on a plantation in Virginia.
The Chrysler Art Museum, Provincetown: A Collection of Fakes
The Chrysler Art Museum was founded in Provincetown in 1958. Unfortunately, it became mired in controversy soon thereafter. A traveling exhibition of Chrysler’s collection opened to critical acclaim in Provincetown in 1962. It included works by many of the great French Impressionists.
However, Canada’s National Gallery subsequently identified over fifty percent as fakes. Chrysler purchased many of the fakes from a less than reputable New York gallery which specialized in works ‘attributed to’ famous artists.
Chrysler himself remained sanguine in the face of the art world’s opprobrium. He said simply, ‘I’m satisfied with all the pictures. I don’t make any claim for their being the greatest examples of each artist, but we can’t look at masterpieces all the time. I think that would be rather dull.’
For their part, Chrysler’s neighbors on Cape Cod came to unfavorable conclusions about him at an early stage. In 1958, Edward Hopper warned John Clancy that Chrysler might be interested in borrowing one of his paintings for a show of Provincetown artists at the Chrysler Museum. Characteristically, it was a group from which Hopper excluded himself.
‘I am not at all anxious to be in the show,’ he wrote, ‘as it will no doubt be almost entirely abstractions and perhaps not very good ones. Use your discretion in the matter.’
In a scrawled addendum to the letter, Jo Hopper wrote, ‘He is not the buying kind. He not liked here much. That last show – “Art Festival” a fizzle. Glad not to have been involved in that. He out to make money.’
Norfolk Hopper: The Chrysler Museum Moves to Norfolk
The Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences officially became the Chrysler Museum in 1971 and now houses thirty thousand works of art. Approximately eighty percent of these came from Chrysler’s personal collection.
Chrysler donated the Norfolk Hopper painting, New York Pavement, in 1983 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Norfolk Museum’s foundation. However, it had already been on long-term loan to the museum since Chrysler acquired it in 1976.
‘We are glad [New York Pavements] has found such a fine home after leaving our collection,’ wrote Mortimer Spiller, the painting’s previous owner, to Chrysler in 1980. Spiller previously wrote of his ‘mixed emotions’ on parting with the work.
Although painted in 1924 or 1925, and widely exhibited across America, New York Pavements was not sold until 1955. At that point, it entered the collection of Larry Fleischman, then of Detroit. This not uncommon delay in the sale of Hopper’s work is a reminder of how difficult the American art market was for local artists at the time, even for ones of Hopper’s stature.
Fleischman, a handsome, overweight man with smiling eyes and curly hair was, of course, a prominent collector and dealer of Hopper’s pictures in the 1950’s and 60’s. Fleischman first collected privately and then commercially through his ownership of the Kennedy Galleries in New York.
New York Pavements: The Norfolk Hopper
The Norfolk Hopper is a deceptively simple painting. It portrays a nurse-maid pushing a pram past an apartment building. The view is from a forty-five degree angle approximately one story above the ground.
Lloyd Goodrich described this as one of the first paintings in which Hopper introduced diagonals through an artificially elevated and rotated perspective. Later, this was a technique he would become well-known for.
Other paintings Goodrich likened it to in this respect were Office at Night, which we’ll see in Minneapolis, and The City, now on its way from Tucson to Boston.
Some critics have postulated that the baby in the pram in New York Pavements later became the young woman standing on the steps of an identical apartment building in Summertime (1943).
The Building as The Protagonist
Intriguing as this idea is, the most interesting thing about New York Pavements is that the real protagonist of the painting is the building itself. In fact, it was only the year before, in 1923, that Hopper started painting his New England watercolors, which featured architecture so prominently.
The motion of the nurse-maid across the frame, her headpiece blown back by a New York wind tunnel, lends drama to the apartment building she is passing rather than to her own journey. An interceding column forbiddingly cuts off the open building’s open doorway, which is black and gloomy.
As with House by a Road in Phoenix, the traditional entrance of the front door is blocked. This makes the most enticing entrance to the building a window next to the doorway. The window’s yellow curtain billows open. The use of the flowing curtain and headpiece evokes the feeling of a windy New York street. This makes it akin to another of Hopper’s favorite subjects, the sailboats navigating the winds off of Cape Cod.
Today, internal combusion and nuclear fission run the local boats instead of trade winds. Fog carpets Norfolk as I drive out of town. I leave the military men and women to their journeys over the darkened fields of Ireland towards the Middle East as I head north to Trenton.