Hopper’s Ghost

It’s the last day of summer, near sunset. I park at Fisher Beach and walk toward the Hopper House. I want to see warm, low light hit the western wall of his house. Hopper once said that all he wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a building. All I want is to see pink light on the side of his. 

It’s not to be. The half-dozen times I’ve made this walk, the weather’s never been with me. Today a bank of fog hangs over the mainland. It forces the light up and over the house, illuminating a few clouds behind it. The house itself is flat and drab, not at all ‘a Hopper.’

Edward Hopper has been vexing me this summer. Whenever I take a photograph with a building in it, there’s a very good chance someone will comment that it’s ‘Hopper-esque.’ (Earlier in the summer I even posted a picture of his house and titled it ‘Hopper’ and someone said it ‘looked like a Hopper.’) Everything on Cape Cod ‘looks Hopper-esque’ because it’s where he made so much work. Another way of saying it: Hopper’s paintings, even when made in other places, very often embody the starkness of Cape Cod. 

His work often feels nostalgic to me — an effort perhaps to capture the vernacular life that was so quickly fading here (a lament we still hear nearly a hundred years later). His paintings have been so frequently copied and reproduced that it’s sometimes easy to forget, in his historical context, he made paintings that were new — advancing realism by adapting the perspective of photography and cinema, but also bringing unexpected facets of contemporary life into view. While he was a critic of abstraction, to his great benefit he employed the design sensibility of early abstractionists. For these reasons I enjoy his paintings.

I’m also ambivalent about him. I’m told by my Truro neighbors, some who knew him, some whose parents knew him, that he wasn’t well liked by locals. That says a lot about a person. He didn’t have much time for the Modern artists in Provincetown, and I’m told they didn’t care much for his conservative politics.  He didn’t support his wife Jo’s career as an artist, and seems to have been traditionally sexist in other ways. He was by all accounts a reticent man, quite social awkward. I suspect I wouldn’t want to spend time with him. 

I don’t want to make paintings like his paintings or make photographs that make people yearn for his paintings. But I live the same place he inhabited, and the way he saw this place informs how I see it. Quite literally, I’m a neighbor to his legend, and I have to learn to live with his ghost.

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Field Guide: Walking & Painting on Cape Cod 
is a fundraiser to support Provincetown Commons’ artist studios, co-working facility, meeting spaces and exhibition gallery. Please donate at our website: https://www.provincetowncommons.org/fieldguide-walkingandpaintingcapecod

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