Host an Edward Hopper exhibit! That’s what the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is doing this summer. Edward Hopper’s Maine is on view through October 15, and it was packed with visitors today (who were, unfortunately, so loud it was hard to commune with the paintings). There are two whole rooms of small paintings Hopper did on Monhegan Island. In stark contrast to his precisionist architectural gritty urban scenes, these are more impressionistic, mostly done with a palette knife, showing the curves of rock and surf on the Maine island infamous to summer art tourists. Although when Hopper was there, in the second decade of the 20th century, it was still a relatively quiet place for artists.
There’s a video narrated by Steve Martin in which Hopper is quoted as saying all he wanted to do was to paint the light washing over buildings. Yes!
The exhibit is organized with the Whitney Museum of Art, and of the 88 paintings on view, 30 or so are from private and public collections, so this is a rare opportunity to see them all together.
After studying painting with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, Edward Hopper traveled to Europe three times between 1906 and 1910. Once he settled in his New York studio, he began to reconcile his indigenous training with the painterly traditions that he had encountered abroad, attempting to set himself apart from legions of other downtown artists. Like many painters, he sought refuge from New York City summers in coastal colonies, initially in Gloucester, MA, then traveling to Maine for the first time in 1914. Hopper spent two consecutive summers in Ogunquit, the second of which saw his plein-air painting thwarted by fog. In 1916 he decamped for the more remote Monhegan Island, where he would return for the next three summers, one of a very diminished number of wartime visitors.
At the core of Edward Hopper’s Maine are nearly all of the thirty-two oil sketches that the artist executed during the summers he spent on Monhegan. These small panels, many of which were never shown in the artist’s lifetime and continue to be under-exhibited, are astonishing in their jewel-like hues, painterly execution, and spatial ambiguity. Seen en masse, these oils yield unique insight into the artist’s process by revealing his sustained contemplation of similar motifs. Stalking his subject, Hopper painted the Monhegan headlands repeatedly, but under such varying conditions, and from such different vantages, that the works’ seriality is not immediately apparent.
By 1924, Edward Hopper had taken up watercolor painting and begun to exhibit at the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery in New York, where he would enjoy his first significant commercial success. Returning to Maine in 1926 (this time to Rockland), and again in 1927 and 1929, he painted some of his most iconic Maine images — lighthouses, beam trawlers, dories, and coastal villages like Cape Elizabeth. Natural beauty becomes increasingly peripheral to Hopper’s study of structures and vessels, and one begins to perceive here the heightened tension between rational operations and subjective sensations (“the most exact transcription of my most intimate expressions”) that will characterize his mature painting. This concentrated look at a significant body of rarely seen work sheds new light on one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century.