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Complicating The Seen With The Unseen by John Wilmerding

October 26, 2012

Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. Detail, “Second Story Sunlight.”

Hopper is one of my favorite painters,  probably for the reason last mentioned in the following essay:  This summary work by Mr. Hopper epitomizes his ability to complicate the seen with the unseen.

Edward Hopper was a prominent American realist painter and printmaker. While he was most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolorist and printmaker in etching. By 1923, Hopper’s slow career climb had finally produced a breakthrough. He re-encountered his future wife Josephine Nivison, an artist and former student of Robert Henri, during a summer painting trip in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

They were opposites: she was short, open, gregarious, sociable, and liberal, while he was tall, secretive, shy, quiet, introspective, and conservative. They married a year later. She remarked famously, “Sometimes talking to Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” She subordinated her career to his and shared his reclusive life style. The rest of their lives revolved around their spare walk-up apartment in the city and their summers in South Truro on Cape Cod. She managed his career and his interviews, was his primary model, and was his life companion. I grew up in South Wellfleet, the town next to Truro and when I encountered Hopper in the 60s was instantly drawn to his work. I have three of his paintings (prints) in my bedroom.  

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Edward Hopper (1882-1967) holds the reputation of being one of the great American realists of the 20th century. His painting career spans the first two thirds of that century, and includes numerous indelible images of rural and urban scenes, from the lighthouse series painted near Portland, Maine, in the 1920s to “Nighthawks” (1942) set in New York City. Often he depicted three of his favorite themes together: isolated human figures, landscape and architecture — usually defined by a bright but cold light. But while his scenes are grounded in observed reality, the most compelling pictures have an unsettled and even mysterious character. Often simplicity of design shields a complexity of emotions, and an impending narrative yields only to inexplicability.

Such is the case with one of his great later works, “Second Story Sunlight.” The title itself suggests doubled visual and verbal meanings: We are looking at the upper floors of two gabled houses, while on the balcony in the foreground sit two women of different generations, thus introducing a second personal story. Mr. Hopper’s descriptive impulses, economies of design and stagelike settings have not accidentally drawn the critical attention of novelists like Ann Beattie, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, the poets John Hollander and Mark Strand, and actor-writer Steve Martin.

Pairings are everywhere in this picture: Each figure sits framed by two windows behind; single matching windows are repeated above in each gable, and each window is divided into equal upper and lower rectangles. Even the yellow square window shade at the left balances its counterpart of sunlight on the wall within. And of course the severely drawn and illuminated architecture plays off against the amorphous green landscape of woods to the right, with the four second-floor windows in front contrasted with the four sunlit tree trunks, which also frame dark spaces behind. (At the same time Mr. Hopper always allows for irregularities, lest we overlook the lone side window and sliver of a third structure on the left side.)

Where are we? It’s not entirely clear. Certainly not within a town, such as Gloucester or Provincetown, nor in open rural landscape. With the summer sunlight, young bather and poses of leisure, we seem to be near the shore, probably somewhere on Cape Cod. Mr. Strand notes that the rising angle of trees would indicate a hillside, and indeed the soft rounded crests above almost read like hilly dunes on the Cape. The repeated row houses suggest a middle-class rather than spacious resort community. The style of the buildings is a simple country classical, with its plain wood cornices, corner pilasters and flat-planked balcony. In front no ground or road or further open space is evident.

And who are the women? Because they sit on the same balcony we presume they are related, as grandmother and granddaughter, though Mr. Updike speculated that the older woman was thinking about her younger self. The first is reading, most viewers initially assume, but appears rather to be looking up from her magazine or newspaper, interrupted by something or someone in the unseen distance off to the right. The girl is in a bathing suit the color of the ocean. She sits up straight with her chest thrust out as if to catch attention, and looks out to the same space beyond the picture’s frame.

Close as the two figures are physically within the balcony, the older is more confined by it, the younger on the edge of open space. Also, the darkened sidewall of the farther building creates a strong vertical panel visually separating them. Whatever they share, they are a contrast not only in age, but also of the cerebral and the physical.

Windows regularly play a crucial role in Mr. Hopper’s compositions, whether in indicating or hiding the human presence. Besides their geometries, here the shade levels appear to amplify the inner nature of the sitters. Behind the girl the shades are half or fully lowered, hinting at a closed-off or unformed private life, while the elder woman sits by a more open, sun-flooded interior. Revealing a glimpse of a sofa arm and hanging picture, the room within is spare and orderly, the taste of someone set in her ways. Both women are relaxing in their own manner; are they vacationing? There is no indication whether this is a permanent residence or a second home just for the season. We do not know what brings them together.

Then there is Mr. Hopper’s control of color and light. Of the latter he once famously, if disconcertingly, declared that he was only “interested in painting sunlight on buildings.” Light and shadow for him served both formal and emotional roles in a painting’s expression, clarifying as well as obscuring. In this instance the strong sun falls directly on the front facade of the buildings, anchoring our attention on the center of the composition. Blues of varying intensity frame this white geometry: the cloudless sky above, bluish tree trunks and blue shadowed sides of the houses and balcony. The yellow shades and red building details complete a design based on primary colors. Subordinate contrasts exist in the complementary juxtapositions of red-green and lavender-yellow.

Countering the sunshine that crosses the view from outside the right frame are the diagonals leading the eye from upper left to lower right: the large steps from building cornice to balcony railing to lower porch roof, reinforced by two bright red forms of chimney above left and roof below right. All this sets up a visual and even psychological dialogue between what is painted within the canvas and what or who may be imagined if we, too, were to look off to the right. This summary work by Mr. Hopper epitomizes his ability to complicate the seen with the unseen.

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