National Museum of American Art

Washington, D.C.



Edward Hopper: The Watercolors

October 22, 1999­January 3, 2000


The first major exhibition in forty years of the watercolors of Edward Hopper (1882­1967) will premiere at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum on October 22, 1999. The exhibition, co-organized with the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, features fifty-six watercolors made between 1923 and the mid-1940s, ranging from early scenes of Gloucester and Cape Cod to works painted on trips to Mexico and Charleston. The watercolors are the body of work that brought Hopper, then in his forties, his first critical and financial success. (left: Edward Hopper in Truro, Mass., 1934, Photograph: Dr. Davenport WEst, Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh)

The product of several years' research by Virginia M. Mecklenburg (senior curator at the Museum of American Art) and Margaret Lynne Ausfeld (curator at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts), Edward Hopper: The Watercolors brings together rarely seen masterworks from fifteen private lenders and eighteen museums. Senators Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah), both longtime arts advocates, are honorary patrons for the exhibition.

The watercolors present an approach very different from that of Hopper's oils and their carefully composed urban scenes heavy with alienation and rigid geometry.

"We are delighted to present these wonderful watercolors by one of America's most revered artists," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Museum of American Art. "These paintings reveal a more spontaneous Hopper who was moved by the thematic possibilities of simple houses and expansive skies."

Born in 1882 in Nyack, N.Y., Hopper first became known for his etchings. He had painted since his student days at the Chase School, where he was a classmate of George Bellows, Guy Penn du Bois, and Rockwell Kent, but his artwork brought him little attention and for a number of years he made his living as an illustrator, a career he found unsatisfying and frustrating.

While vacationing in Gloucester, Mass., during the summer of 1923 he began working in watercolors at the suggestion of Jo Nivison, an artist who became his wife the following year. Away from New York and working outdoors in a medium that demanded quick choices, Hopper was at his freest. He drew from visually complicated subjects -- lighthouses along the shore, gabled and dormered Victorian houses -- to create images specific to real locations, a direct contrast to the invented settings of the etchings and paintings of his urban artworks.

The watercolors, composed only by Hopper's choice of vantage point, capture subtle and ephemeral shifts in the light and air of a particular moment and place. In them he examines crisp New England landscapes, the dramatic perspectives and intense sunlight of Mexico, and haunting vestiges of the Civil War in Charleston. Hopper repeatedly turned to lighthouses and Victorian architecture as symbols of the past. By setting these subjects adjacent to utility poles, railroad tracks, or other references to progress, he elicited a dialogue between past and present and alluded to change as a fundamental characteristic of American life.

The watercolors from the summers of 1923 and 1924 catapulted Hopper to fame. The Brooklyn Museum purchased The Mansard Roof after including it in their 1923 watercolor show, and all sixteen paintings in a 1924 exhibition at Frank K. M. Rehn's New York gallery sold. In The Mansard Roof (1923), a sun-washed pile of a house, fluid forms of foliage and shadows dance to the same breeze that billows the yellow awnings. "He captured the temperature of the air, a breath of wind, the rustling of dry grasses-an aura of timelessness very different from the psychic urgency so often found in his urban scenes," said curator Mecklenburg. In Funnel of Trawler (1924) the interplay of light and shadow combines with unusual cropping to create a sense of immediacy.

Hopper visited Cape Cod for the first time in 1930 and he and Jo returned each summer to paint, building a modest house there in 1934. While the watercolors produced during the 1930s are less spontaneous, they exhibit a greater sense of compositional finesse and take on a more modernist edge. Roofs of the Cobb Barn (1931) emphasizes the clean geometric forms and white planes of the barn roof.

In his later watercolors Hopper engaged the textured surface of the paper through drybrushing and relied less on washes. Cottages at North Truro (1938) illustrates this "toothier" approach. It also unites two important Hopper themes, vernacular architecture and railroad references, in a complex and dramatic landscape.

By the late 1930s his work was becoming more restrained in both style and method. Hopper had exhausted the Cape Cod area for imagery, and he and Jo began traveling elsewhere for subject matter. Several of the late watercolors were painted in Mexico; Monterrey and the Spanish colonial town of Saltillo provided inspiration for Monterrey Cathedral, Saltillo Mansion, and Saltillo Rooftops, works from the summer of 1943.

Edward Hopper's regular forays in watercolor ended with a trip West and into Mexico in 1946. Asked in 1960 if he gave up watercolor out of a preference for working slowly, he replied, "I don't think that's the reason I do fewer watercolors. I think it's because the watercolors are done from nature and I don't work from nature anymore."

Edward Hopper: The Watercolors is the final exhibition before the museum begins an extensive renovation of its historic home, the Old Patent Office Building. During this three-year renovation, eight major traveling exhibitions featuring 500 treasures from the permanent collection (see "Treasures to Go") will make stops in 70 museums throughout the country. NMAA's presence in Washington, D.C., will be maintained at its Renwick Gallery, located on Pennsylvania Ave. across from the White House.

Following its Washington debut, Edward Hopper: The Watercolors will be shown January 30 through March 26, 2000, at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Ala., the final venue for the exhibition.

Edward Hopper paintings from top to bottom: Coast Guard Station, 1927, watercolor, gouache and charcoal, 13 7/8 x 19 7/8 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Lesley and Emma Sheafer Collection, Bequest of Emma A. Sheafer, 1973; Saltillo Mansion, 1943, watercolor, 21 1/4 x 27 1/8 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Geaorge A. Hearn Fund, 1945; Folly Beach, 1929, watercolor, gouache and charcoal, 13 7/8 x 19 3/4 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Lesley and Emma Sheafer Collection, Bequest of Emma A. Sheafer, 1973; Portland Head Light, 1927, watercolor over charcoal, 13.5 x 19.5 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of John T. Spaulding, 1948; Light at Two Lights, 1927, watercolor, 14 x 20 inches, The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, The Blount Collection; Roofs at Washington Square, 1926, watercolor over charcoal, 13 7/8 x 19 7/8 inches, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Beal, 1993; House with Big Pine, 1935, watercolor, 20.5 x 25.25 inches, New England Collector; Eastern Point Light, 1923, watercolor, 14 x 20 inches, Private Collection; House by the Sea, 1923 or 1924, watercolor and graphite, 13 15/16 x 20 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest; Funnel of Trawler, 1924, watercolor, 13 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches, Kathy and Bruce Hornsby; The Mansard Roof, 1923, watercolor over pencil, 14 x 20 inches, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museum Collection Fund; House on Pamet River, 1934, watercolor, 21 13/16 x 26 13/16 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase.


Web-Site Feature

An Edward Hopper Scrapbook of artwork and archival ephemera from throughout Hopper's career will be on view starting September 7 at This electronic scrapbook presents a broad but intimate view of Hopper's life and work including views of over 50 paintings. Web site visitors will have the opportunity to browse through letters written by Hopper, his friends, and his wife, Jo; read original clippings related to his many artistic achievements; view photographs of Hopper and reproductions of his artwork; and hear audio clips of him discussing his paintings.



A fully illustrated book by curators Virginia Mecklenburg and Margaret Lynne Ausfeld will be published by W.W. Norton, on the occasion of the exhibition. The 192-page book will be available for purchase in the museum shop. An Edward Hopper: The Watercolors 2000 wall calendar, published by Rizzoli, will be available also.

The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Sara Roby Foundation, Thelma and Melvin Lenkin, Paula and Peter Lunder, Marie and Hugh Halff, Forbes Magazine, and the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program. Partial support for the exhibition catalogue was provided by Furthermore, the publication program of The J. M. Kaplan Fund.

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/18/10

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