While always maintaining a strong sense of place and an overt realism, Edward Hopper sought to capture what he described in 1933 as "the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature." Two decades later, in an oft-quoted statement, Hopper again emphasized the importance of his realism as an expression of his own, deeper, aesthetic sense. "Great art," he wrote, "is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world." (as quoted in L. Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, pp. 161, 164) His choice and his earnest and slightly romantic representation of seemingly mundane subject matter in masterworks such as October on Cape Cod set Hopper apart from his contemporaries and allowed him to create a new and uniquely American iconography.
Hopper's early years spent studying painting at the New York School of Art with Robert Henri, the leading promoter of the Ashcan school, were a formative experience that colored the remainder of his career. His classmates at the school included many young luminaries such as Gifford Beal, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent and Guy Pène du Bois. Although the mature style of October on Cape Cod marks a distinct departure from Henri's painterly and bravura depictions of the gritty side of the city, Hopper always embraced one of the older artist's central teachings: to paint the city and street life he knew best. Over twenty years later, Hopper wrote of Henri, "No single figure in recent American art has been so instrumental in setting free the hidden forces that can make of the art of this country a living expression of its character and its people...Of Henri's renown as a teacher everyone knows; of his enthusiasm and his power to energize his students I had firsthand knowledge. Few teachers of art have gotten as much out of their pupils, or given them as great an initial impetus." (as quoted in Edward Hopper, pp. 17-18)
Henri's early encouragement to look to his surroundings for subject matter stayed with Hopper throughout his career and the subjects of many of his great works, including October on Cape Cod, are those of quotidian, distinctly American scenes, which moved him. Hopper commented, "My aim in painting is always, using nature as the medium, to try to project upon canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears when I like it most; when the facts are given unity by my interest and prejudices. Why I select certain subjects rather than others, I do not exactly know, unless it is that I believe them to be the best medium for a synthesis of my inner experience." (as quoted in R. Hobbs, Edward Hopper, New York, 1987, n.p.)
Hopper's varied subject matter, from urban offices, diners and movie theaters to country roads, isolated homes and undulating dunes, was a result of his habitual division of his time between New York and New England almost every year beginning in 1912. New England offered the artist respite from the bustle of the city and a plethora of pictorial elements to explore, often spurring a creative outpouring. "New England led Hopper into realms of light and shadow. Under the spell of the region's translucent and tonic air, he painted away to his heart's desire. His very soul, it would seem, fell in sync with the poetry and spirit of the place. If indelibly American in his art, Hopper was also thoroughly New England." (C. Little, Edward Hopper's New England, New York, 1993, p. VI)
Hopper first visited Cape Cod with his wife, Jo, in 1930, renting a house in South Truro for three summers before building a home and studio there in 1934. The couple began to spend six months there almost every year and Hopper found a plethora of subject matter in the unassuming homes and buildings that populated the peninsula as well as the sandy dunes and crystalline light that give it its distinct character. He drove around the Cape in search of subject matter, often drawing and painting from his car, a practice that he undertook in various locations throughout his career as far away as the Oregon coast. This imbues his works with a sense of distance, often making the viewer feel like a voyeur, rather than a participant in the scene. Robert Hobbs writes of the impact of the automobile on Hopper's art and his willing integration of the vehicle into his creative process, "Unlike his artistic forebears, Hopper is the poetic distiller of the landscape of late industrialism. He is also the first chronicler of the view of America dictated by the automobile, and, most important, he is the first to understand the ramifications of the automobile, an invention that would serve to isolate people from each other and separate them from the country they hoped to escape to on weekends. At an early date he understood the ways that the automobile would transform America and make it psychologically as decentralized as present-day Los Angeles." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1987, p. 11)
Indeed, October on Cape Cod presents a view of a house and small barn from across a deserted road, as one would see the scene from the window of a passing car. The modest buildings sit isolated from one another on a swath of sandy roadside, staring bleakly back at the viewer and there is no sign of human presence other than the open shutters and shades of the white building--not even a car in the driveway. The work is permeated by profound silence and stillness--not even a rustle in the grass. Gone is the clear blue, summer sky, replaced by the subtle, gray-tinged autumn light. Here Hopper masterfully captures not only the atmosphere of quietude and loneliness that populates a vacation spot out of season, but also the greater human condition of psychological isolation and existential loneliness in modern society.
Large-scale works such as October on Cape Cod were the result of an arduous creative process during which every pictorial aspect was well-considered before Hopper picked up his brush. This process was so time and emotionally intensive that Hopper usually only completed one to two canvases a year. Robert Hobbs writes, "He said that a painting was almost completely established in his mind before he began to paint it. His art was the results of a long and painful period of allowing various impressions to form a synthesis, and then it was a patient and equally difficult time of trying to re-create that synthesis, a process of finding painterly equivalents for the vision he held." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1987, p. 10)
Hopper painted October on Cape Cod in his South Truro studio in 1946 based on several pencil studies completed in his car, the working method he increasingly preferred from the late 1930s on. This maintained the detached voyeurism of his earlier works while also introducing the element of memory as he was now working from sketches rather than from the scene itself. Thus Hopper's aim was not a literal transcription of the place, but one that was altered so as to replicate his emotional response to it. While October on Cape Cod depicts a seemingly mundane scene, these sketches reveal that Hopper did not merely transcribe reality, rather he edited the site so as to convey his impression of the place and the sentiments that it evoked in him. This is indicated by the depiction of a two-story house with a front porch in one of the studies. The reduction of the house to a single-story, bare structure in the finished composition makes it a more anonymous structure and allows for a cleaner, unobstructed horizon line and an equal emphasis on architectural and natural elements. Hopper utilizes color to create compositional unity, repeating the orange of the house's trim and chimney as highlights in the grass; the green of the densely packed trees in the house's shutters; and the gray of the road in the traditional, weathered shingles. He also employs a repetition of forms throughout the composition in the angles of the roofs and rectangular orifices of the buildings and the diagonal trajectory of the road, which is echoed by the tree line--all of which adds to the anonymity of the scene.
The description of October on Cape Cod in Hopper's wife, Jo's, record book discusses both its physical and emotional attributes, speaking to the profound silence that her husband conveys in the painting. "Beyond slately grey road strip of very pale (yellowish) sand across length of canvas. Low herbage (bayberry) digging in green. Tall grass beyond slightly pinkish with low clumps of green. House fresh painted white, barn left dull. Rooves[sic] of both slately grey. Glimpse of red foundation, chimney dull red. Edge of locust grove L. [left] dull green. Woods in background with green underfoot at front edge. Sky wan, whiteish with long strips of grey, some pale blue at top. Peace, quiet, 'no birds sing. Some day you will be quiet too.' - E.H.'s favorite Goethe (strictly off the record)" (Record Book page reproduced in D. Lyons, Hopper: A Journal of His Work, New York, 1997, p. 73)
October on Cape Cod presents a suspended narrative, which simultaneously entices and rebuffs the viewer, creating the tension and anticipation that are characteristic of Hopper's best works. Here, Hopper creates a shallow, stage-like pictorial space, using the impenetrable wall of trees to vexingly focus attention on the foreground. The scene operates much like a film still, a single vision isolated from an overarching narrative, creating a yearning in the viewer. This is underscored by the subject itself, which is common enough to feel familiar, and yet rendered in such an anonymous fashion so as to make it feel foreign, creating a continuously engaging dichotomy as the viewer tries to reconcile him or herself with the emotions that the scene evokes.
In October on Cape Cod and throughout his career, Hopper painted aspects of America that few other artists addressed. He portrayed unromantic visions of life in a broad and increasingly modern style. While Hopper's paintings have formal qualities in common with other Modernists, his art remained steadfastly realist. Lloyd Goodrich wrote of Hopper's work, "His art was based on the ordinary aspects of the contemporary United States, in city, town, and country, seen with uncompromising truthfulness. No artist has painted a more revealing portrait of twentieth-century America. But he was not merely an objective realist. His art was charged with strong personal emotion, with a deep attachment to our familiar everyday world, in all its ugliness, banality, and beauty." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, p. 15)
Edward Hopper, South Truro Post Office I, 1930, watercolor and pencil on paper, 13 3/4 x 19 3/4 in. Michael Altman Fine Arts. Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art
Edward Hopper, 1882-1967, Artist's ledger - Book III, Page 19, 1924-1967. Pen and ink, graphite pencil, and colored pencil on paper, Book: 12 3/16 x 7 5/8 x 3/4in. (31 x 19.4 x 1.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Lloyd Goodrich 96.210. Whitney Museum of American Art, NY. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins
Edward Hopper. Photograph by Peter A. Juley, October, 1933.
Edward and Jo Hopper on Cape Cod, circa 1930.
Edward Hopper, Study for October on Cape Cod, 1946, charcoal on paper, 12 3/8 x 18 3/8 in. Collection of Laurence C. and J. Anton Schiffenhaus from Mary R. Schiffenhaus. Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art
Edward Hopper in his New York studio. Photograph by George Moffet.
"Edward Hopper was a painter of spartan canvases that reflect the emptiness, and sometimes the almost heroic plainness, of modern American life." (D. Lyons, Hopper: A Journal of His Work, New York, 1997, p. 9)
"A man of no nonsense and few words, Hopper's personality is paralleled in his paintings, in which a judicious and sober brushstroke and a minimum of detail can evoke in the viewer's imagination scenes of great drama and longing." (D. Lyons, Hopper: A Journal of His Work, New York, 1997, p. 9)
"Coming to prominence in the 1920s, in the heyday of the flappers and the first widespread use of the radio and the automobiles, Hopper presented a new and poignant vision of America." (R. Hobbs, Edward Hopper, New York 1987, p. 11)
"My aim in painting is always, using nature as the medium, to try to project upon canvas my most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears when I like it most; when the facts are given unity by my interest and prejudices. Why I select certain subjects rather than others, I do not exactly know, unless it is that I believe them to be the best medium for a synthesis of my inner experience." (as quoted in R. Hobbs, Edward Hopper, New York, 1987, n.p.)
"If indelibly American in his art, Hopper was also thoroughly New England." (C. Little, Edward Hopper's New England, New York, 1993, p. VI)
Edward and Josephine Hopper standing, about 1950 at Truro. Black & white photograph. © Frances Mulhall Achilles Library, Hopper Archives, Whitney Museum
Edward Hopper in his New York Studio, 1958. Black & white photograph .© Frances Mulhall Achilles Library, Hopper, Archives, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph by George Moffett, Jr.
Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Artist's ledger - Book I, (page 71), 1913-1963. Pen and ink, graphite pencil, and colored pencil on paper, Book: 12 1/4 x 7 1/2 x 1/2in. (31.1 x 19.1 x 1.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Lloyd Goodrich 96.208.© Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins
Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Ryder's House, 1933, oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 50 in. (91.6 x 127 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC Art Resource, NY. © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art
Edward Hopper (1882-1967), South Truro Post Office, 1930, watercolor and pencil on paper, 13 3/4 x 19 3/4 in. Michael Altman Fine Arts. © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art
Edward Hopper, photograph by Peter A. Juley. Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum