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.
Pine forests and plantations lead up to Sarasota. The powdery white sand captures the dying rays of the sun setting over the ocean. It’s a scene so Californian I wonder if traveling across the country has gotten me anywhere at all.
A popular holiday destination, Sarasota is typical of Florida south of the panhandle. It is sun kissed, bursting at the seams with people, but hanging on to the natural beauty which has made it a beloved place in the hearts of Americans.
The Ringling: A Beautiful Museum
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art’s massive grounds, traversed by an armada of golf buggies, are rapidly growing. And it is busy, hosting more than three hundred thousand visitors per year.
Despite this, its waterside tropical gardens are the picture of refined relaxation. I wander through the swelteringly humid gardens towards the library, which is housed in an imposing neoclassical building. There I do my research, stopping only to wipe the sweat off my forehead.
‘Jenness House Looking North’ was bought by the Ringling Museum in 1976 for $89,000 from Larry Fleischman. It is one of four Hopper watercolors depicting the same house in South Truro.
Hopper’s Friends in Cape Cod
The Jenness family were long-time friends of Edward and Jo Hopper in Cape Cod. They first met the Hoppers when the couple were living in the ‘Bird Cage’, a cottage in South Truro located above a house owned by Edgar Cobb, also the subject of Hopper watercolors.
The ‘Bird Cage’ was so named because of its exposure to the elements. It was infested by ‘field mice that wanted to be adopted and share our meals – especially sweet corn and peaches,’ wrote Jo Hopper.
The Hoppers later stayed with the Jenness family while they were having their own house built in South Truro in 1933. As a show of thanks, Hopper painted ‘Jenness House IV’ (1934) and gave it to Harriett Jenness. ‘Jenness House IV’ was eventually bequeathed by Harriett’s daughter, Virginia, to the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, where we’ll see it soon.
In a letter to the Ringling Museum of Art dated November 14, 1982, Bart Jenness, Harriett Jenness’s grandson, shared his memories of Edward Hopper in Cape Cod:
As a youngster I spent several summers at the Cape during the 30’s and recall the Hopper house quite well. His studio was on the crest of a dune with a large picture window looking out over the bay and beaches. I visited there on many occasions and was priveleged [sic] to see him at work.
An Intimate Relationship to Place
Evidence of the Hoppers’ intimate relationship with Cape Cod can be found in many places. We can see it in Edward’s loving depictions of the area, their close friendships with their neighbors, their insistence on staying well after the summer peak.
Hopper’s first watercolor of the Jenness house in Cape Cod from 1932 depicts such a time. Jo Hopper’s Record Book entry for the picture reads, ‘The Jennesses gone home, house shut up.’
It is poignant to think of Hopper painting the vacated house of his new friends in early October, the sea breeze carrying a newly found chill in it. It bespeaks an affection and warmth which is probably behind more of Hopper’s brushwork than we will ever know.
What have you seen in Hopper’s brushwork that others haven’t?