The first major exhibition in forty years of the watercolors of Edward Hopper (1882–1967)
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.
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 Watercolorsbrings 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 Pène 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
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
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 Watercolorsis 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 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. The museum's award-winning web site at
www.nmaa.si.edu will continue to produce virtual exhibitions, the bilingual webzine ¡del
Corazón!and other educational features, in addition to offering extensive collection and
Following its Washington debut, Edward Hopper: The Watercolorswill be shown
January 30 through March 26, 2000, at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in
Montgomery, Ala., the final venue for the exhibition.
An Edward Hopper Scrapbook of artwork and archival ephemera from throughout
Hopper's career will be on view starting September 7 at www.nmaa.si.edu/hopper. This
electronic scrapbook presents a broad but intimate view of Hopper's life and work. 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
is $39.95 for hardcover (NMAA members $31.95) and $24.95 for softcover (members
$19.95), and will be available for purchase in the museum shop. An Edward Hopper: The
Watercolors2000 wall calendar, published by Rizzoli, will be available for $12.95
(NMAA members $10.35).
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.
The National Museum of American Art, the first federal art collection, is located in the Old
Patent Office Building at Eighth and G Streets, N.W. in Washington, D.C. above the
Gallery Place Metrorail station. Museum hours are from 10 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. daily (closed
December 25). Admission is free. For more information, call (202)357–2700;
(202)786–2393 (TTY); (202)633–9126 (Spanish recording).