At the Rockwell Museum
9 Route 183, Stockbridge, MA
Two very disparate personalities are on display at the Rockwell Museum through October 26. One lights up the room and invites you in to play; the other asks only to be left alone in the shadows.
The Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator follows Hopper’s struggle to become a “real” artist while earning his keep as an illustrator in the 1910s. His mentors and peers have work exhibited as well so that the show represents a history of the greats in illustration during last few decades of the Golden Age of Illustration. To cap it off, Murray Tinkleman’s show is still up and serves as a perfect example of the evolution of narrative art.
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) travelled much the same path at about the same time. One wonders, however, if they were looking out the same window. What stands out about Hopper’s work is his love for shadow, for introspection and for capturing what I call laundry-mat-moments: those times when one sits in a public place utterly lost in one’s own thoughts. His most iconic painting is Nighthawks (1942) in which three people sit late at night in a corner deli. Compare this to Rockwell’s Saying Grace (1951) or Freedom from Want (1943) and it is easy to see the very different way in which the two viewed the world, or at the very least, how they felt about people in general.
What is interesting about Hopper’s earlier illustrative work is the fact that he was forced to paint people “prancing about” at a time when it went against fashion to be gloomy. Not only did this depress him, it brought a signature tension into his commercial work. This is especially apparent in his covers for the Morse Dry Dock Dial magazine and for Hotel Management Magazine. If Rockwell saw a world full of home-cooked meals and children playing, Hopper’s world fit more into the Gilded Age of Wharton mannerism.
It is in his book illustrations that the real Hopper starts to come out of hiding. Achingly visceral and tangibly emotional, these charcoal drawings are breathtaking. They also serve as examples of Hopper’s creative process since he, like Rockwell, spent a lot of time making studies and analyzing his ideas before putting them to paint. It is wonderful to see how he uses charcoal to explore mood and its relationship to lights and darks.
While the paintings of his peers give you an overview of his artistic development, it is the relationship and work of his wife, Josephine Nivision Hopper, that is most descriptive of the man. An artist and performer in her own right, Jo Hopper used her skills to pull Hopper through his many serious bouts of depression and writer’s block by working alongside him and sparking his competitive streak. I found her watercolor of her favorite cat, who had a chair and plate at their dinner table, to be a nice break from the brooding mood of her husband.
What this exhibit brings to mind is the question of nostalgia. Is the past sweeter than today as portrayed by Rockwell? Or is it full of the romantic struggle of hidden lonely souls as is seen in Hopper’s work? After seeing this show, my answer is that it depends upon what you choose to see when you look out the window.