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Slayton: Hopper in Vermont

02/15/13 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) For at least a century, Vermont has been a quiet retreat for artists, both visual and otherwise. A recent book examined the visits that the great American artist Edward Hopper made to Vermont. Commentator and Vermont Life editor emeritus Tom Slayton has this review.

(Slayton) Bonnie Tocher Clause’s recent book, Edward Hopper in Vermont, explores a side of the famous American artist that is unfamiliar, even to his admirers: the paintings and sketches he did while vacationing in Vermont.

There are some obvious contrasts between the Vermont works and the oil paintings for which Hopper is internationally known. For one, the paintings he produced here were not oils; they were watercolors. Second, Hopper’s more familiar works are mostly urban scenes. And many of them include people, perhaps most famously in the iconic oil, “Nighthawks,” which depicts a small group of people in a midnight diner.

But there are no people depicted in any of his Vermont paintings. Not one.

They are mostly landscapes, some including the time-honored rural motifs of barns, sugarhouses, cows and farm machinery. Some of those earliest farm scenes reveal Hopper’s weakness as a draftsman.

But the artist’s work quickly improved. By the mid-1930s, he was painting hillsides, lone trees, and a starkly weathered sugarhouse that resonated with presence and glowed with light. Hopper had clearly come to understand Vermont visually.

That understanding may have come because he was spending more time here. He and his wife, Jo, made extended trips to Vermont, and in the summers of 1937 and 38 they had month-long stays at a South Royalton farm.

A series of riverscapes, painted alongside the nearby White River, capture the feel of the small, eloquently winding river and are also arresting essays in form and composition. And the 1938 painting, “First Branch of the White River,” is truly brilliant, whether considered as a evocation of the landscape of the White River Valley, or as a masterpiece of watercolor technique.

Much has been made of the loneliness and alienation that many of Hopper’s urban scenes express. The artist himself resisted such interpretations. Rather, he said on more than one occasion, that he was trying to paint himself. He was, in other words, attempting to capture the essence of his inner world by an evocative depiction of the world around him.

Perhaps Hopper – reputedly a tight-lipped, emotionally reticent, even lonely man – may have “painted himself” more closely than even he realized. His Vermont landscapes are beautiful, cool and remote. The fact that there are no people in any of them emphasizes that coolness. Thus he may have expressed his own personal aloneness – the ultimate aloneness of each human being, really – even though he wasn’t overtly trying to do so.

His paintings remain striking evocations of a Vermont countryside we can still see today. We are indebted to Bonnie Tocher Clause for the meticulous research she has done in exploring this little-know side of a great American artist in her fascinating book, Edward Hopper in Vermont.

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