Princeton Hoppers, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey

Princeton Hoppers: A Great Loneliness

The Princeton Hoppers are in the Princeton University Art Museum. I look with Laura Giles, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Princeton University Art Museum, at Princeton’s three Hoppers watercolors. Universalist Church, Trawler and Telegraph Pole and Lime Rock Railroad were all given to the museum by Clifton R. Hall. ‘He always seems to project this great loneliness,’ she says of Hopper.

Clifton R. Hall: The Princeton Hoppers Collector

None of Princeton’s watercolors contain a human figure. Nevertheless, many people see just as much loneliness in Hopper’s inhabited pictures.

Edward Hopper painted the Princeton Hoppers in 1926. Later that year, Hopper delivered them together to the Rehn Gallery. Over the following two years, they were purchased by Clifton R. Hall, a professor of history at Princeton University from 1910 until his death in 1945.

Hall was the first professor at Princeton to introduce the topic of American art history into lectures. He was also an avid collector of works on paper.

Hall left a wide-ranging, international collection of three hundred and fifty pictures to Princeton on his death. Hall made the bequest in honor of his mother, Laura P Hall. Laura Hall fostered in her son an appreciation of art from a young age. Hall also bequeathed an endowment with which to purchase ‘works on paper of quality.’

Hall was an early and loyal devotee of Edward Hopper’s pictures. He wrote to Frank Rehn in 1926 of his marvel at ‘the astonishing progress of a great artist.’ Even though his purchases came in Hopper’s early years, when his watercolors were priced at a reasonable two hundred and twenty-five dollars, Hall had difficulty financing his collecting. At one point, he was forced to sell drawings by George Luks and others back to Rehn in order to ‘help me with the sheriff.’

When not dealing with the sheriff, Hall, whose nickname was Beppo, kept his collection on display at his home so he could share it with visitors. From the small sample of his collection I see at Princeton, this would have made for a confronting house call.

The Princeton Hoppers: An Unforgiving Starkness

Lined up next to each other, Hall’s Hopper watercolors are notable for their unforgiving compositional starkness.

In Trawler and Telegraph Pole, the telegraph pole is in the immediate foreground, creating a strong visual barrier to the trawler behind. ‘This visual difficulty, as it were, enhances the sense of physical and psychological isolation,’ wrote John Wilmerding, former Professor of American Art at Princeton, ‘further reinforced by Hopper’s familiar cold glare of sunlight.’

Hopper uses an acutely angled perspective in Universalist Church to produce a similarly unwelcoming façade. The viewer’s head is craned up towards a towering steeple, a structure looming in the foreground cutting off all but the steeple’s top.

Lime Rock Railroad is only slightly less intimidating. A weeping willow offers deep, blue-green shade to the railroad and an adjacent dilapidated shed. The tree’s branches lead to an open window at the top of the house behind it.

Only the most brave, however, would climb those branches to inspect what lies inside. The house appears to have a story to tell but it may just prevent you from sharing it with anyone else.

Correspondence between Hall and Rehn suggests that Hall was considering selling Lime Rock Railroad at one point to help his financial straits, although Rehn convinced him otherwise, writing, ‘I sincerely trust for your own sake that it will be possible for you to geep (sic) it with the others, as it is so perfectly clear what is going to happen to anything of his.’

The Hall Collection at Princeton: No Relief from the Rebuttal

The fourth Hall Collection picture I see is by Hopper’s artistic compatriot, Buffalo, New York native Charles Burchfield. Burchfield’s pictures, almost all of which are watercolors, veer between cheery, brightly colored sylvan landscapes and grim, black and white urban scenes.

Eating Place takes the latter theme and turns it into a full-blown nightmare. It depicts a harrowing, post-apocalyptic wasteland of muddy desolation. Here, abandoned houses practically scream from the gaping windows in their façades. The only work that surpasses it in terms of pathos is perhaps Picasso’s Guernica.

The Hoppers in the Hall Collection have no relief from the strong feelings of rebuttal which Hopper usually softened with a sense of intimacy. In these pictures, there are barriers but no openings.

What this says about Hall and his personality is open to interpretation. What this says about Hopper is that sometimes he just wanted his landscapes to himself

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