St. Louis is a long four hour drive across Missouri from Kansas City. At its outskirts, I have the overwhelming feeling of being back on the east coast, the place of my upbringing. The rolling, forested hills are reminiscent of the swampy backwoods of northern Virginia.
A massive eight-lane interstate streams into town. I am reminded of the hours spent driving back and forth to school alone along the Beltway. It was still bordered then by tall oaks and maples. Roads can be a source of anger and frustration. But they can also be inspiring, a means of freedom and escape, as they were for Hopper himself.
The Gateway Arch
St. Louis is the Gateway to the West, symbolized by Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch on the Mississippi River. It was one of my childhood dreams to see the Arch, a mythological symbol in the American psyche.
The Arch is more awe-inspiring than I could have imagined. Its monumental proportions strike up towards the humid sky and the great anvils of storm clouds brewing on this early summer’s afternoon.
Later, I walk into the Anheuser-Busch Brewery Tour sober and walk out intoxicated. I top the night off with a St. Louis pizza, a thin-crust variant which is smothered with provolone, instead of the customary mozzarella.
St. Louis Art Museum: A Community Affair
The most enjoyable aspect of St. Louis, besides the free beer, is the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM). Nestled in the thirteen hundred acres of Forest Park in the west of the city, the Museum was designed as a pavilion for the 1904 World’s Fair. The tactile sense of history is ever-present in St. Louis. More than other old American cities, like Cleveland and Kansas City, it has held on tightly to its past as a source of civic pride.
An example of the resulting community is preserved in the museum itself. A previous director, Charles Buckley, cultivated a close-knit network of wealthy locals cum art collectors. One of these collectors was G. Gordon Herstlet, who lived down the road from the museum, along with many other SLAM collectors. With his wife, Marie, he gave the Hopper watercolor, ‘Bow of Beam Trawler Osprey’ (1926) to SLAM in 1972.
‘A Hopper would do a lot to step up your collection.’
Hopper Visits St. Louis
Before this gift, SLAM ‘had no Hopper yet,’ as an apologetic representative of the museum explained to Jo and Edward Hopper on their visit to St. Louis in 1941, during their long cross-country trip to California. Jo, in typically forthright fashion, replied, ‘It would do a lot to step up your collection.’
Herstlet’s gifts did indeed step up SLAM’s collection. Herstlet focused on American art in the early twentieth century, particularly works on paper. In addition to Hopper, he donated pictures by American Impressionist Maurice Prendergast, Precisionists Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler and Ashcan School painters George Luks and John Sloan. The Sloan, ‘Night Windows’, which depicts an urban landscape populated by empty windows, is eerily reminiscent of a Hopper picture.
‘Bow of Beam Trawler Osprey’ was executed in Rockland, Maine, like ‘Harbor Shore, Rockland’ at the Blanton Museum in Austin. One of a series of detailed, loving depictions of New England fishing boats, or beam trawlers, it presents just what the title describes, but with a unique Hopper perspective.
As Eric Lutz, Assistant Curator for Prints, Drawings and Photographs at SLAM tells me in the light-flooded, cathedral-ceilinged viewing room, ‘You don’t see any kind of horizon line and it starts to border on a certain abstraction.’ The picture, he says, ‘reveals Hopper’s interest in using nautical subject matter to create a very interesting geometric composition.’
Multiple hooks, lines, anchors and pulleys are spread out over the deck of the boat while a furled sail presents an almost human-like figurine, a face clearly decipherable at its head.