Edward Hopper in Maine
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art has been setting attendance records this summer with Edward Hopper’s Maine, an exhibition (through October 16) of some 90 paintings, watercolors, drawings and prints of Maine landscapes and cityscapes created during nine trips to Vacationland between the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the stock market crash of 1929.
Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee called Edward Hopper’s Maine “marvelous” and “simply superb,” gushing, “who knew Edward Hopper had painted more than two dozen scorchingly brilliant open air studies in oil of the rocks and sea at Monhegan, in Maine?”
Actually, just about everyone familiar with the history of art in Maine. We also knew Hopper had painted houses in Rockland, lighthouses in Cape Elizabeth and Pemaquid, landmark buildings in Portland, and harbor at Ogunquit. Back in 1985, Gail Levin published an odd little book entitled Hopper’s Places in which she paired Hopper paintings of New York, Maine, Gloucester and Cape Cod with her own photographs of the same places, often remarkably unchanged after 60 years. The Bowdoin museum website has an interactive feature that does much the same thing, allowing you to click on a location and see both the Hopper painting and a contemporary photo.
“My aim in painting,” Edward Hopper wrote, “has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature.”
The Bowdoin show of his Maine paintings supports this statement, but the greater body of Hopper’s art does not. Edward Hopper (1882-1967) did not begin painting his mature work until around 1925. The paintings that made him the American painter laureate of isolation, alienation and loneliness, were figurative masterpieces such as such as Nighthawk (1942) and Morning Sun (1952) painted much later in his career. Had Hopper stopped painting in 1929, the terminal year of the Bowdoin exhibition, he probably would be remembered like Leon Kroll, just another good landscape painter.
When you walk into the exhibition, the first gallery is devoted to the paintings that made Smee gush, 30 small oils Hopper did on Monhegan Island over the summers of 1916-19. Littoral jewels, the little Monhegan landscapes, all about a foot in any dimension, are refreshing in their modesty. They are paintings painted for people, not institutions, art meant to be lived with not stored and studied to death.
The best painting in the show is probably Capt. Upton’s House, 1927, a portrait of the lighthouse keeper’s house at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth. The painting is owned by comedian Steve Martin, a serious art collector who wrote a short essay about the painting for the exhibition catalogue.
The weakest painting in the show is the largest, the nearly three by five foot Maine in Fog, 1926-29, a slack, unresolved painting of a beached fishing boat. You can see what Hopper was trying to get at with the grey haze and soft focus, but it doesn’t quite work.
Edward Hopper’s Maine was co-curated by Bowdoin museum director Kevin Salatino and curator Diane Tuite and was undertaken in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, which contributed 50 of the works to the show. Everything about the exhibition is first rate, including the the 176-page catalogue (Delmonica Books-Prestel, $49.95 hardcover) and the companion exhibition Edward Hopper’s Contemporaries, which features Maine paintings by Modernist painters such as George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, Leon Kroll, John Marin, John Sloan and, surprisingly, Andrew Wyeth.
Edward Hopper’s Maine is Kevin Salatino upping the ante for academic art museum exhibitions. He even scored the coup of getting Alex Katz, since the death of Andrew Wyeth the most famous artist working in Maine, to design the installation of Edward Hopper’s Maine.
“If you look at landscape painting from that time in America,” says Katz, “there isn’t anyone close to him in technique.”
(Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brusnwick ME, 207-725-3275)