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Solitude's Shore: Edward Hopper's Cape Cod

Cape Cod painter Edward Hopper found a source of light like no other. And much of the Cape remains as he captured it.

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By Patricia E. Dempsey
Sunday, March 29, 2009

I'm lost on the curved arm of outer Cape Cod. The back roads in Truro bend and dip in and out of grassy heath and dunes the color of butter, then disappear into dirt lanes and trees. I spot family names hand-painted on arrow-shaped slats hammered to a pole -- they point in both directions. None is the name I need. When I asked Patsy Bartlett for a distinguishing detail, how I would know that I had found her home, a place Edward Hopper had painted, she told me that once I got on the bay side it would be easy. "You'll recognize it; you'll just know. It looks Hopperesque." There's a flicker of blue sea, light on a slanted roof through the trees. Was that it? I back my car around. Keep looking.

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The disorienting thing for me is, as Gail Levin, a preeminent Hopper authority and biographer, puts it, "In a certain way, all of the houses in Truro and Wellfleet are Hopperesque."

Critics revere Hopper, who was born in 1882, as one of the most original and important American realist painters of the 20th century, but Hopper cringed at such categorizations. "I never tried to do the American scene," he said. "I think American scene painters caricatured America. I always wanted to do myself." He was a flinty individualist. He was anti-FDR, anti-New Deal. He lived frugally, with his wife and fellow artist, Josephine Nivison, most of his life in the same New York City fourth-floor walk-up that didn't have central heat until the 1960s. For many years they lugged coal up on a dumbwaiter for their potbelly stove and even shared a communal bathroom. He loved theater and film, was well read, admired Emerson's "Self-Reliance." He didn't drink. He was private, shy even. Taciturn. Stubborn. Didn't want his wife to drive the car. He was given to depressions, fallow periods when Jo would help him jump-start his creativity, find new places to paint. He created some 2,500 works before he died in 1967.

Hopper spoke very little, and, not surprisingly, most of the people and places in his paintings are silent. He captured the quiet brooding of off-hours Greenwich Village, where he lived, creating the spare, iconic masterpieces for which he is noted. As a commercial illustrator, he learned to simplify to great effect. Stark and direct, Hopper's realism makes a scene instantly felt. The anonymous -- lone diners at night, a theater usher lost in thought, a woman gazing into her coffee -- becomes deeply personal. Hopper takes our private moments and makes them his own, and it is haunting.

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Hopper and Jo purchased a first car in 1927. He loved the freedom of the open road and drove to find new places to paint. Along the New England coast he moved from Gloucester, Mass., to Maine, then to Cape Cod, where he told Jo he liked how "the shadows aren't dark, like [in] Maine." They summered for more than three decades in Truro, an untrammeled 26-mile stretch between Wellfleet and Provincetown where the milder climate meant they could paint well into the off-season.

Like the bare, open land that once was here, Hopper's Cape works are unadorned. Luminous liquid light bathes simple shapes. There are quiet disconnects, as power lines and roads cut across the tightknit fabric of rural life. Hopper painted structures: rough-hewn barns and hen coops, pitched-roof saltboxes,churches, Truro's lighthouse, a tiny train station, and fishermen's shacks on dunes. In "Cape Cod Evening" (1939) a couple seems unaware of each other; only their collie is alert, as Hopper noted, "listening to a whippoorwill or some evening sound." And there are Hopper's nautical paintings -- young shirtless lads in the streamlined beauty of sloops, white sails, brilliant blue sea.

Seen from the beach below, "House on Dune Edge" (1930) looms against a small sky; bright sunlight hits the curved facade, but one is drawn to the mysterious, deep shadows on the porch. It is situated at much the same angle as "House by the Railroad" (1925), which Hitchcock used as a model for Norman Bates's house in "Psycho." Hopper "didn't know any film directors, but he was a film aficionado," says Levin, who talked to me by phone. "His paintings were in many ways like scene sets, frozen frames." Hopper's paintings of Cape roads, such as "Road and Trees" (1962), "Route 6, Eastham" (1941) and "Gas" (1940), inspired film motifs and particularly director Wim Wenders, who said, "The paintings of Edward Hopper are always the beginnings of a story."

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Hopper liked to work alone. He painted at the same time of day to capture similar light. He sometimes painted the Cape while sitting in his green-and-white Buick, his watercolor board propped against the steering wheel (he replaced the tinted windshield with clear glass to best see the colors and light). He loved his car. It insulated him from people, and he could quickly disappear into the same branching maze of dirt lanes and tarmac back roads that wind through Truro today. As I drive these roads, I recall how Hopper once said: "To me, the important thing is the sense of going on. You know how beautiful things are when you are traveling." On the Cape he found movement and drama in the interplay of solitude, architecture and light. And something more: His paintings are infused with a traveler's yearning to discover what's around the bend -- what's going to happen next? The storytelling. "If you could say it in words," he said, "there would be no reason to paint."

The homes Hopper painted have been sold or passed on, but folks in Truro still refer to them by the names of the families who lived in them in Hopper's day -- "over by the Marshall House," "way down by the sand near the Ryder House," "up near the Jenness place." The Jenness family were neighbors; the Hoppers lived in their home while their own cottage was under construction. In return for this hospitality and a right of way across their land, Hopper created a watercolor, "Jenness House Looking North" (1934) In it, burnished red rooftops radiate warmth, and sunlight dries the fleecy, tawny-gold meadows. For many locals and tourists, such Hopper sites are hallowed ground, but not all the current owners like the attention. Other residents share their Hopper places with an open door. Hopper died more than 40 years ago, and his vision of the Cape's untamed, fragile beauty makes him a sacred commodity today. He is still fondly remembered here as a neighbor, though he belongs to us all.

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