Amongst the first thirteen purchases for the Murdock Collection was Edward Hopper’s ‘Five A.M.’ (1937).
It’s Five A.M. in Wichita
‘Five A.M.’ shows a lighthouse marooned mid-harbor on a rocky outcrop. In a letter to Elizabeth Navas dated July 12, 1939, Hopper wrote, ‘The idea of the picture had been in mind a long time before I started to paint it, and I think was suggested by some things that I had seen while traveling on the Boston, New York boats on Long Island Sound. The original impression grew into an attempted synthesis of an entrance to a harbor on the New England coast.’
‘Five A.M’ is one of the few Hoppers which you can get an honest feel for in reproduction. Overall, that feeling is of peace. The remarkable misty blues of the mountains in the distance, reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, highlight the solitude of the brightly glowing lighthouse in the foreground. Its incandescence fends off the undulating tide.
Sunlight on Brownstones
‘Sunlight on Brownstones’ (1956) is one of Hopper’s more famous pictures. Navas went to great pains to point out to Lloyd Goodrich an error that the Whitney had made in the title during one of its exhibitions of the painting. ‘The omission of the final “s”,’ she wrote, ‘changes the artist’s thought which was of sunlight on two old houses clearly depicted architecturally and not merely of the material of which the houses were constructed.’ Navas was well-known for letters of this type during her long stewardship in Wichita.
Gleissner accompanies me into the galleries after lunch to view ‘Sunlight on Brownstones’. He agrees with me that one of the most striking things about the picture is the juxtaposition of nature with urban life. The former is represented by a vacant city park in the right half of the picture. The latter is represented by the brownstones.
Connecting the two are a young man and woman, who are staring into the distance from the front steps of the house. A warm, munificent light shines on the trees and the houses. A line of jagged rock in the park parallels the curve of the balustrade, softening the divide between city and nature.
‘The attempt to give a concrete expression to a very amorphous impression is the insurmountable difficulty in painting.’
Conference at Night
Regarding ‘Conference at Night’ (1949), the third Hopper painting in the Murdock Collection, Hopper wrote to Navas on June 28, 1952, ‘The idea of a loft or business building with the artificial light of the street coming into the room at night had been in my mind for some years before I attempted it. And had been suggested by things I had seen on Broadway in walking there at night. The attempt to give a concrete expression to a very amorphous impression is the insurmountable difficulty in painting. The result was obtained by improvisation, and from no known fact or scene.’
Most, if not all, of Hopper’s oil paintings were derived from a synthesis in his head of previous experiences and were painted in the studio, not ‘from the fact.’ This is in contrast to Hopper’s watercolors, almost all of which were painted outside, directly from the scene. This fundamental difference leads to an interesting dilemma: which medium more truly represents the artist’s thoughts and feelings? The contrived amalgamation of his most potent memories or the fluid reproduction of an inspiring scene?
Most critics have chosen Hopper’s oils as his best ‘attempt to give a concrete expression.’ However, a vocal minority in recent years have championed his lesser known watercolors for the very fact of their more ‘amorphous impressions.’
The distinction between Hopper’s oils and watercolors is most stark when comparing his night scenes, which were all oil paintings, with the almost exclusively outdoor, daytime watercolors. The representation of artificial light coming into a room at night fascinated Hopper.
‘In these urban night scenes, it is the masterly interplay of lights from various sources that creates the pictorial drama.’
The year before he painted ‘Conference at Night’, Hopper had written extensively about the difficulties of painting artificial light in a similar painting, ‘Office at Night’ (1940), which we’ll see in Minneapolis. ‘In these urban night scenes,’ Lloyd Goodrich wrote, ‘it is the masterly interplay of lights from various sources, and in various colors and intensities, that creates the pictorial drama.’ In contrast, the clear light of Hopper’s sun-drenched, summer watercolors is a piercing one, a light so prevalent that it both illuminates and becomes one with the scene.
‘Adam’s House’ (1928), the sole Hopper watercolor in the Murdock Collection, was a favorite of Frank Rehn’s (1886-1956). Rehn was a New York realist gallery owner who was Hopper’s lifelong dealer. He was an indispensable promoter of Hopper’s pictures.
‘Adam’s House’ was a favorite of Rehn’s. It remained in his private collection for twenty-five years until Navas bought it in 1954. Navas wrote, ‘Because of my friendship with Frank and Peggy Rehn, I was permitted to buy “Adam’s House.” (Quite upset certain collectors) The price [$1250] was barely pennies in today’s Hopper values.’
One of those upset collectors was Larry Fleischman, who was informed by telegram by Rehn’s assistant, John Clancy, ‘regret unable to get Adams House for you.’ We’ll get to know Fleischman, a charismatic and prominent collector of American art and later owner of the Kennedy Galleries, further along this journey.
The End of the Murdock Collection
In contrast to ‘Adam’s House’, ‘Sunlight on Brownstones’ and ‘Conference at Night’ were purchased at a similar time in the 1950’s for $4,750 and $3,000, respectively. Such lavish purchases were permitted by the ongoing rental income from the Caldwell-Murdock Building, which contributed the bulk of the collection’s finances. Funds in the trust ran dry with the deterioration of Wichita’s downtown area in the 1960’s, spelling an ironic end to Murdock’s program of civic improvement.
Stephen Gleissner, Chief Curator at the Wichita Art Museum, has no doubts about his favorite Hopper picture in the collection, ‘Five A.M.’ ‘I think it’s absolutely one of the most riveting paintings,’ he says as we look at it together in storage. ‘I could just stare at it forever.’
Which is your favourite Hopper in the Wichita Art Museum collection?