Edward Hopper’s earnest representation of commonplace subject matter in works such as Two Puritans set the artist apart from his contemporaries and allowed him to create a new and uniquely American iconography.
Painted in 1945, at the height of his career, Two Puritans depicts a pair of austere Cape Cod houses side-by-side, as seen from across a swathe of grass bisected by a dirt path. The title of the work and the physical attributes of the houses strongly indicate that it is a portrait of Hopper and his wife, Jo.
‘The houses in this composition… seem strangely animated,’ wrote Gail Levin in the Complete Oil Paintings of Edward Hopper (2001). ‘The windows, shutters, and doors read almost like facial features, elements of personalities that make their presence felt. In this sense the houses may symbolize the tall Hopper and his petite wife, both of whom steadfastly refused to be swayed by fad and fashion.’
Hopper’s relationship with his wife was notoriously complicated and often fraught. Jo was a fellow artist and rather than embrace her talent, Hopper seemed to demand that her work be secondary to his, so as not to compete in any way.
Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967), Two Puritans, 1945. Oil on canvas. 30 x 40 in. (76.2 x 101.6 cm.) Estimate: $20,000,000 – 30,000,000. This work and the one below are offered in our American Art sale in New York on 21 May
Seen as a portrait, Two Puritans embodies this singular relationship. The two clapboard houses feel distant and stifled, but also as though each might collapse if separated from the other. They are unified by a pristine white picket fence, a universal symbol of pure values, yet quite distinct in their separation, marked by the trees which aggressively bisect the composition. The larger, weightier, more masculine house asserts its dominance over the smaller house with its roof beginning where the other ends. The resulting sensation is an image that communicates a stubbornness and immobility of both parties, as if frozen in time and standing on principle.
As well as being an intimate and revealing portrait of the artist and his wife, Two Puritans is also a testament to Hopper’s dogged dedication to realism in the face of a changing visual world that increasingly championed abstraction.
Large-scale works such as Two Puritans 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 consuming and emotionally intensive that Hopper usually only completed a few canvases a year; in 1945, he painted only three canvases including the present work.
The painting has remained in private collections since its creation and this the Amrican Art sale in New York on 21 May will be first time it has been offered at auction. Two Puritans has been exhibited at such renowned institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Tate Modern in London, and it was most recently included in a major retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, which travelled to the Grand Palais in Paris in 2012, where the Hopper exhibition broke attendance records.
Also offered in the American Art sale is Hopper’s House with Dead Trees, 1932, which presents a view of a typical Cape Cod house from across a field of grass, off-centre as one would glimpse the scene from the window of a passing car. As with all of Hopper’s best works, there is a sense of distance and detachment. The house seems unapproachable — a thing to be looked at but not entered — an effect that is heightened by the lack of human presence.
Edward Hopper (1882–1967), House with Dead Trees, 1932. Watercolour on paper. 20 x 28 in. (50.8 x 71.1 cm.) Estimate: $2,500,000 – 3,500,000
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 in the area almost every year, and Hopper found an abundance of subject matter in the unassuming homes and buildings that populated the peninsula as well as the sandy dunes and crystalline light that give South Truro its distinct character.
This work, one of only a handful of watercolours of this size left in private hands, demonstrates Hopper’s mastery of the medium, which he often used to capture the play of New England light as it was conducive to working en plein air and with greater freedom. He usually began with a quick pencil sketch and filled it in with washes of colour, imbuing works, such as House with Dead Trees, with a sense of immediacy and freshness.
Executed just a couple of months after the artist’s 30th birthday in July 1932, House with Dead Treesis a particularly poignant iteration of Hopper’s famed psychological reflections on his everyday surroundings.
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