Barn at Essex manifests the freedom and luminosity of Edward Hopper's finest watercolors and is superlative of the large body of career-defining work the artist produced during various summers in New England. Central to his oeuvre, "New England provided Hopper with motifs which he would turn into icons of American art...New England led Hopper into the 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, San Francisco, 1993, p. VI)
Hopper executed Barn at Essex while on his way to Maine with his wife, Jo in the summer of 1929. The couple drove north from New York, making several stops along the way, one of which was in Essex, Massachusetts, where he did two watercolors, Farm House at Essex and the present work. Here Hopper presents a snapshot of rural life-- a whitewashed barn abutted by a silo with two related buildings and a pick-up truck in the driveway. He characteristically presents the scene as it struck him, monumentalizing the barn and focusing on the formal qualities of the structures rather than the activity that occurs inside. Indeed, the only sign of human presence in the scene are the open barn doors.
Hopper often used watercolor for his New England works as this medium was conducive to working en plein air and provided him a freedom not afforded by oil paint. He usually began with a quick pencil sketch, the remnants of which are still visible in the driveway, and filled it in with washes of color giving works such as Barn at Essex a sense of immediacy and freshness. The fluidity and spontaneity of delicate washes in the sky and grass is juxtaposed with the more controlled application of color in the buildings. As is characteristic of Hopper's mature style, he employs a largely neutral palette highlighted by strong touches of color in the barn doors, roof at right and silo. Cohesion in the composition is achieved through the repetition of curved and triangular forms and of highlights of blue and gray. The emphasis on atmosphere breathes life into the work, imbuing it with a sense of temporal beauty.
Barn at Essex demonstrates Hopper's refreshing and modern approach to traditional subject matter as he focuses on the formal rather than narrative qualities of the scene. Emblematic of Hopper's best New England watercolors, Barn at Essex is perpetually fresh and utterly American.
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
Photography by Sheldan C. Collins © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art.