When Frederic Church’s lost painting ‘The Icebergs’ was found to be in the possession of a school in England, newspapers here had to explain that Church was a 19th-century American painter. The picture made 2½ million dollars at auction in New York: a reminder that provincial values – in a number of senses of those words – can still surprise.
‘The Americans,’ Professor Novak writes, ‘participated in the great landscape adventure’ of the 19th century ‘with an art that grew out of its singular relation to American nature, to the artistic traditions of Europe, and to its own developing traditions.’ The benefits and problems of this ‘singular relation’ characterise a whole tradition of American realism which includes Eakins, Homer and Hopper. Worthington Whittredge, writing of his return to America in the 1860s, says:
It was impossible for me to shut out from my eyes the works of the great landscape painters I had seen in Europe, while I knew well enough that if I was to succeed I must produce something new which might claim to be inspired by my home surroundings. I was in despair ... I think I can say I was not the first or the only painter of our country who has returned after a long visit abroad and encountered the same difficulty in tackling home subjects.
He was certainly not the last. Edward Hopper made only three trips to Europe – in 1906, 1909 and 1910. He said that when he returned from France, America ‘seemed a chaos of ugliness’, and later that ‘it seemed awfully raw here when I got back. It took me ten years to get over Europe.’ Whittredge found ‘the forest a mass of decaying logs and tangled brush wood, no peasants to pick up every vestige of fallen sticks’, while Hopper wrote of ‘our native architecture with its hideous beauty’ and of houses ‘shouldering one another along interminable streets that taper off into swamps or dump heaps’. These struggles to accommodate what Henry James called ‘our crude and silent past, our garish climate, our deafening present’ to European traditions resulted in a realist tradition which may turn out to be America’s greatest contribution to 19th and 20th-century painting.
Professor Novak’s book is fascinating because she sets about showing how the work of the prolific and confident landscape painters of the mid-1800s can be related to contemporary religious, philosophical and scientific debates and enthusiasms. She describes Church’s library as ‘an extraordinary testament of the artist’s continued efforts to accommodate post-Darwinian science with religion’. In Europe his time would, most likely, have been taken up with perception and its relation to art, rather than with geology and its relation to God.
Professor Novak distinguishes two major categories of mid-19th-century American landscape painting in her second chapter – ‘Grand Opera and the Still Small Voice’. The operatic pictures (Bierstadt’s of the Rocky Mountains, Church’s of the Andes, Cole’s sequence ‘The Course of Empire’, for instance) please her less than the ‘luminist’ paintings of Heade and Fitz Hugh Lane – those of ‘the still small voice’. She writes of the latter (they resemble the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich) that they ‘brought the 19th century as close as it could come to silence and the void.’ Hopper, whose paintings are ‘silent’ in a similar way, wrote rather tetchily that ‘the loneliness thing is overdone. It formulates something you don’t want formulated’ Which in its turn sums up very well the difficulty of writing about works which are, in Professor Novak’s words ‘classic rather than baroque, contained rather than expansive ... private not public’.
The baroque paintings were public pictures – successors to panoramas such as Henry Lewis’s ‘Mammoth Panorama of the Mississippi River’, painted on 45,000 square feet of canvas, the unrolling of which, to an accompaniment of music and commentary, took several hours. Professor Novak shows how, in ‘operatic’ landscapes, painters quite consciously strove to present American nature as an expression of divine providence. Painters served the cause of religion, for God had spoken his promise to a chosen and blessed people through the sublimity of nature. They served the cause of patriotism by displaying the magnificence of the newly-opened West. And very soon they were showing, with a mixture of optimism and distress, tree stumps and railways that marked the retreat of that wilderness.
The ‘operatic’ landscape paintings had forerunners in the panoramas – and successors in the movies, above all in Westerns. Yet while the buttes and prairies look back to Bierstadt, the heavily shadowed noon-day buildings, the empty streets and the railway, are the province of the painters of urban America – of whom Hopper was one of the greatest. He was not a Westerner – he spent his summers in New England and his winters in New York – but there is something laconic about his paintings and his utterances that makes it easy to think of him in that context. ‘If you could say it in words there would be no need to paint,’ he said, and his wife, who talked a lot, complained that ‘sometimes talking with Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except it doesn’t thump when it hits the bottom.’ His career, too, moved slowly and purposefully. He was born in 1882, but it was 1924 before he was able to make a living from painting. The first fifteen years or so of his professional life were spent making money as an illustrator and a reputation as an etcher. These aspects of his work are covered by Gail Levin’s two books – which are, one discovers, overtures to a catalogue raisonnée.
He did not like illustrating – ‘I was always interested in architecture, but the editors wanted people waving their arms’ – and had no great opinion of the illustrations he produced: ‘I was a rotten illustrator, or mediocre anyway.’ He did not want to draw people ‘grimacing and posturing. Maybe I am not very human. What I wanted to do was to paint the sunlight on the side of a house.’ There is some overlap of subject-matter between his commercial and his serious work – hotels, offices, ships and trains – but it seems pretty accidental, and on the whole one agrees with Hopper that the illustrations are irrelevant to his work as a painter and etcher. Hopper is a poet of the banal – the closer he got to meeting his editors’ demands the further he was from his own goals. It is not just a question of using figures: his paintings too are inhabited – but when Hopper said ‘the loneliness thing’ had been overdone he was reminding one that it is not the figures which carry the feeling, but the powerfully realised settings. How they do it can in part be explained. He was a master of simplification and design, and empty streets, dim hotel lobbies and late-night cafés are melancholy places. But one must also respect his feeling that there is an unanalysable element: ‘Why I select certain subjects rather than others I do not exactly know, unless it is that I believe them to be the best mediums for a synthesis of my inner experience.’
In the etchings Hopper announced most of the themes that were to go on serving him: buildings, sailboats, people in the city, railways, nudes in what seem to be bedrooms or hotel rooms. As with Homer, there is a sense of the style of the French 19th century (of Manet, say, or Degas) made stronger and coarser to deal with American experience. Having tried other materials, Hopper found he liked his etchings printed very black on very white paper. It seems appropriate.
The first paintings to bring Hopper wide recognition were watercolours of New England houses. Looking at these now, one is pleased by the dash with which he handled the medium – it seems to give a rather soft subject bite. It is interesting to read, though, in Lloyd Goodrich’s book on Hopper, that when they were first shown the general reaction from critics and public was that they were satire. ‘We were not,’ he writes, ‘used to seeing such commonplace, and to some of us ugly, material used in art.’
Hopper’s later paintings (the oils were done in the studio, not, like the watercolours, from life) deal with less tractable material than Victorian Gothic buildings. He was to go on turning people’s eyes towards the world they lived in, as though both prettiness and ugliness were less important than finding out what things are really like.
Europe today is not the wonderfully patinated antique Americans could still find in the 19th century. The Hopper show (which opens at the Hayward Gallery on 11 February) may lead other painters to make pictures of our own muddled and fractured environment which start from, and reconcile us to, the way it is.
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