Editor’s note: This piece is by Nancy Price Graff, a Montpelier freelance writer and editor. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at www.maplecornermedia.com.
Several years ago at the Vermont History Expo in Tunbridge, Bonnie Tocher Clause was standing beside the collection of prints she had assembled of Edward Hopper’s Vermont watercolor paintings when someone said, “These are nice paintings. Did you do them?”
That was the tipping point for Clause. She sent off a proposal to the University Press of New England for a book that would bring the little-known Vermont paintings of Hopper, one of the most revered of all American artists, to a much wider audience. This spring her book, “Edward Hopper in Vermont,” was published, and the Middlebury College Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit of Hopper’s Vermont work through mid August.
The exhibition was timed to coincide with the publication of Clause’s book, but as is often true in alchemy, the result of the coincidence is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken together, the book and the exhibition present a fascinating glimpse into how one of the country’s premier 20th-century painters interpreted the state during the Great Depression and how the landscape and state presented themselves to an artist with an extraordinary way of seeing.
“I clipped Vermont scenes and prints from magazines to frame and hang on the walls,” she says, describing her interest in Vermont artists and their works. “Then I found a Hopper poster of a Vermont landscape. As a New Yorker, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Edward Hopper, but I did some research and didn’t find much regarding his Vermont work.”
She reports that a well-regarded biography of Hopper by Gail Levin, “Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography” (Knopf, 1995), gives “only a few paragraphs to the artist’s time in the state.”
Nevertheless, Clause discovered in Levin’s book that Hopper had painted in and around South Royalton, first in 1927 and then in the latter 1930s, and that his paintings from his time here represented something new and different in style and content.
Thus began the chase. Clause and her partner began driving around Royalton and nearby towns and river valleys, maps and reproductions in hand, eyes roving to find the exact scenes that had attracted Hopper’s eye 70 years earlier. They knocked on doors. They asked questions.
To their surprise, barns that appeared in his paintings were still standing; churches had survived the decades; a steel bridge was little changed. The landscapes of Hopper’s paintings took real form. Clause even found the local farm where Hopper and his wife, Jo, roomed during the summers of 1937 and 1938. They tracked the farmer’s son, now dead, to California, and were thrilled to find that he remembered the Hoppers staying on his farm, joining his family for meals, going out on nice days to find interesting scenes to paint, and bringing home finished watercolors at the end of the day.
Clause’s excitement was contagious, which explains why the South Royalton Historical Society invited her to exhibit her prints of Hopper’s local watercolors at the Vermont History Expo. The homemade display led to the question about whether she was the painter. The book proposal followed, even though the longest thing she had ever published was an article. The University Press of New England, in Lebanon, N.H., accepted the proposal.
And then in February 2012, at a College Art Association conference in Los Angeles, Richard Saunders, director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art, paused at UPNE’s booth to say hello to a good friend who is director of the press. The friend mentioned Clause’s book, still in the works. Saunders knew nothing about it. He asked if any institution were planning an accompanying exhibition. None were.
“A year is an incredibly short amount of time to mount an exhibition,” says Saunders, who quickly read Clause’s manuscript and contacted her.
“I didn’t know whether we would have critical mass to pull it together.”
However, institutions holding Hopper’s Vermont watercolors were happy to share.
“The Whitney Museum of American Art owns 11 of these. They were incredibly generous and loaned us all they had,” says Saunders.
Then he was off to make similar requests of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, other institutions, and private collectors, particularly the one who owns Hopper’s “Maple Shack,” one of the stars of the Middlebury show.
In the end, the college museum mounted an exhibition containing 18 watercolors – which is all but four of the two dozen known works Hopper painted in Vermont.
Unlike oil paint, which is sturdier, watercolors are vulnerable to light and thus are exhibited infrequently. The watercolors gathered for Middlebury’s show have rarely been on public view. Despite Hopper’s reputation and almost cult-like popularity, most people have never seen these watercolors, not even as reproductions. Supplementing the paintings are a handful of sketches, both finished and unfinished, from Hopper’s time in Vermont.
Clause and Saunders, who curated the exhibition, bring complementary perspectives to the achievement this book and exhibit represent. Clause was diligent in her research, putting Hopper and his visits to Vermont into the context of the state’s history: the growth of its artist communities in the 1930s; the birth of the state highway system in the wake of the Flood of 1927; the state’s concerted effort, beginning late in the 1800s, to build a vibrant tourist industry; the effects of the Great Depression on the state; the inexorable decline of dairying, and perhaps most important of all, the mythologizing that began after the Civil War.
These myths increasingly portrayed Vermont as an Eden that had largely escaped the soulless industrialization and urbanization of America. Within the context of these trends, Clause provides an overview of Hopper’s working technique and style.
“Researching this book was a way to discover Vermont and meet people,” Clause says. “Doing it was an adventure in Vermont history.”
Saunders, an art historian, comes to the paintings a different way around the barn.
“Hopper was experimenting,” he says. “When he came to Vermont, he was consciously looking for something else.”
According to Saunders, what he found was something entirely different from the themes that even by the 1930s had earned him a reputation as a painter portraying the isolation and disconnection of the urban experience.
“While Hopper’s 1927 watercolors of Vermont are few in number,” one of Saunders’ exhibit notes reads, “they all follow a consistent theme of juxtaposing the vernacular architecture of barns against the rustic landscape.”
All that had changed by 1938, when Hopper made his last visit to the state. Some of his later Vermont watercolors are almost abstract.
Landscapes devoid of man-made structures, the powerful interplay of light and shadow, heavier paper, thicker paint, and organic forms dominate this later work.
This work, says Saunders, “is looser, more robust. It displays a confidence that suggests a newfound enjoyment of the medium.”
Clause and Saunders are full of praise for each other’s work and the role each played in illuminating something hitherto unexamined in the state’s history.
“There’s a great sense of discovery here,” says Saunders. “Most people know Hopper’s name, but his Vermont work was unknown.”
(“Edward Hopper in Vermont” is on exhibit at the Middlebury College Museum of Art until Aug. 11. “Edward Hopper in Vermont,” by Bonnie Tocher Clause, is available in bookstores and at the exhibition.)