The Trenton Hopper is literally a boat out of water. Trenton, New Jersey is home to the New Jersey State Museum. The New Jersey State Museum’s Fine Arts Collection primarily focuses on New Jersey artists. However, it has a sprinkling of other works of art for comparative purposes. Included in this sample is, of course, the Trenton Hopper, Boat and Cliff (1929).
The New Jersey State Museum: Home to the Trenton Hopper
The New Jersey State Museum is undergoing extensive, seemingly interminable renovation. Thus, the Trenton Hopper, the watercolor Boat and Cliff (1929), is plonked on a tabletop for my inspection. The table is in a cramped, impromptu storage area backstage of the museum’s auditorium.
Surrounded by shelves of gaudy, earthenware figurines, museum staff give me a flashlight to augment the ambient fluorescence. Afterwards, I am left alone with the picture.
Boat and Cliff shines despite, or perhaps because of, these surroundings. It bears a striking resemblance to Foreshore-Two Lights, with both pictures executed at Two Lights, Maine.
However uninspiring, the title Boat and Cliff is aptly spare. As Zoltan Buki, the Curator of Fine Arts who procured the picture, wrote:
‘The art of Edward Hopper is often deceptive with its apparent simplicity of subject and treatment. But a cursory interest in it imperceptibly becomes a lure, drawing and holding the not unwilling viewer into its power.’
Leah Sloshberg, then Director of the New Jersey State Museum, concurred. She wrote to Kennedy Galleries, from whom the picture was bought, ‘I am still jubilant over the expectation of the Museum owning the Hopper…It is every bit as beautiful as Mr. Buki had described to me.’
Trenton: A Suffering City
Pharmaceutical company headquarters and top-notch universities surround Trenton, the state capital of New Jersey. In this way, it is much like Durham. Yet, like Durham, it defies efforts to gentrify it.
At lunchtime on State Street, bureaucrats with badges scurry past schizophrenics and beggars. Police on every corner watch over the uneasy mingling. Boarded up shops and apartment buildings ring the small downtown area.
Even downtown, the decay of poverty infiltrates every second shop front. There are no inviting cafés or lunchrooms here. And most of the office workers are just out for a smoke. I imagine, with a shudder, how the streets must feel at night.
The landscaped grounds of the state Capitol offer a brief refuge from this post-apocalyptic scene. There is a view over a busy highway to the idyllic Delaware River, where geese cruise past fishing boats.
The Lower Free Bridge crossing the river has Trenton’s logo splashed across it: ‘Trenton Makes, The World Takes’. It is hard to see what the world now takes from Trenton except unfortunate inmates and a sense of unease.
The Trenton Hopper: A Boat Out of Water
As with Foreshore-Two Lights, Hopper’s palette is subdued and as close to earthy as marine colors can get. Streaks of navy blue intersperse among the rich black hull of the small boat. While the whole beached structure echoes the cliff behind it in both horizontal form and hue.
Bright swatches of blue throughout the composition unify the landscape. In this way, they represent the unseen open water behind our backs.
In Hopper’s hands, the boat takes on human characteristics. ‘The seemingly “foreign” elements of the portholes,’ Buki wrote, ‘transform the man-made boat into a man-like apparition.’
After admiring the colors and brushstrokes, the best way to look at these watercolors is to step back. Hopper gave himself space, physically and emotionally, in which to paint. His pictures give the same freedom to their viewers.
Edward Hopper: A Painter of American Scenes?
While he was clearly a painter of American scenes, Hopper got angry when placed in the American Scene school of painters. The American Scene grouping encompassed both urban Ashcan School artists and rural Regionalists.
Hopper was too independent and too irascible to be so easily characterized. When asked by one interviewer whether he agreed with others’ characterization of his art as ‘very American,’ Hopper replied:
‘I hate the word American Scene. I hate the term. It has been applied to American painters who definitely try very hard to be American and I never did. I just tried to be myself. So if I’m American, all right, I am myself.’
Guy Pene du Bois, the realist painter, art school classmate and close friend of the Hoppers, agreed. ‘You would have difficulty in finding this particular French café in France,’ he wrote of a Hopper portrayal of a Parisian café. ‘You will have difficulty in finding the particular American house that Hopper paints in America. Perhaps one is not more the American scene than the other is the French.’
Charles Burchfield, Hopper’s stable mate at the Rehn Gallery, concurred, ‘Hopper is—just Hopper, thoroughly and completely himself…In him we have regained that sturdy American independence which [19th century portrait painter] Thomas Eakins gave us, but which for a time was lost.’
Yet a large part of Hopper’s appeal, in his own day as now, was his ability to portray the American landscape. He depicted essential elements of both urban and rural life in America.
America: A Search for Home
What is the kernel of truth at the core of the American experience which Hopper captured? What aspects of American life and the American landscape could ring as true with the general public now as they did during his lifetime?
For me, finding the answer to these questions is a search for home. It is a search for a core definition of America which is undisturbed by cultural shifts or the vagaries of politics. One part of this definition is an idealistic one, borne on the words which created the country: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
America still reveres its Founding Fathers today. This reverence comprises two beliefs.
The first is in the timeless values of human equality and freedom enshrined in Constitutions and declarations across the millennia. The second belief, just as strongly held, is in the fiery revolution required to secure these values.
America, the most powerful nation in the world, still believes itself to be fighting a revolution. Even today, it still sees itself as grappling with forces greater than its own.
America has mythologized the story of the underdog who wins but who remains true to his original values and humble beginnings. Hopper, with his success in the face of adversity and his staunch support of realism in a time of abstraction, personified these ideals.
Of course, many artists show persistence and integrity. They are the keys to artistic success. But there is much more to find of Hopper’s America and we have less and less time to discover it.