In Kelly Jenness House and throughout his career, Edward Hopper painted aspects of America that few other artists addressed. His choice and his earnest and slightly romantic representation of seemingly mundane subject matter in works such as this watercolor set him apart from his contemporaries and allowed him to create a new and uniquely American iconography.
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, which formed an important portion of his oeuvre. "New England provided Hopper with motifs which he would turn into icons of American art." (C. Little, Edward Hopper's New England, New York, 1993, p. VI) One of eight watercolors he painted in 1932, Kelly Jenness House is a superb example of Hopper's Cape Cod works that demonstrates the artist's mastery of the watercolor medium and his ability to create hauntingly beautiful and poignant scenes from his everyday surroundings.
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 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. Hopper had long been fascinated by the pictorial possibilities of the play of light and shadow on buildings, once writing, "All I ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house." (as quoted in L. Goodrich, Edward Hopper: Selections for the Hopper Bequest, New York, 1971, p. 8) And he saw drama in these effects on the gently rolling landscape and modest architecture of South Truro, capturing it in works such as Kelly Jenness House. As demonstrated by the quality and freshness of the present work, the Cape's distinct architecture and light revitalized the artist and provided new forms and effects to explore. "The simple shapes of these houses were the architectural antithesis of the complicated, ornamented Victorians he had been drawn to in Gloucester, but the appeal was the same: they offered the opportunity to paint the mesmerizing rhythms of sun and shadow generated in the heat of the day and in the long afternoons." (C. Troyen, "Edward Hopper" in C.E. Foster, ed., Edward Hopper, exhibition catalogue, Milan, Italy, 2009, p. 51)
Hopper 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 works such as Kelly Jenness House 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, Kelly Jenness House presents a view of a typical Cape Cod house from across a swath of sand and grass, off-center 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. Although close to the picture plane, the house seems unapproachable--a thing to be looked at but not entered--an effect that is heightened by the lack of human presence. The work is permeated by profound silence and stillness as the building sits isolated in the greens and browns of the autumnal landscape. Gone is the clear blue, summer sky, replaced by 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.
Hopper utilizes color to create compositional unity, weaving muted iterations of the gray, green and brown of the house into the landscape. He also employs a repetition of forms throughout the composition in the diagonals of the roofs that are echoed in the landscape, and the rectangles of the windows, chimneys and door. The strong play of light and shadow on the angles of the architecture is juxtaposed with the more diffuse light that bathes the softer curves of the landscape. Hopper heightens the effect of each through his use of controlled, opaque washes for the architectural elements contrasted with more diaphanous washes in the landscape. This encourages the viewer to contemplate the permanence of the structure versus the changing season and thus the passage of time.
Hopper was particularly drawn to the Jenness' house, revisiting the subject in three watercolors of 1934, Jenness House Looking North (The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida), Jenness House III (Private collection) and Jenness House IV (The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts). In each work, he presents a portrait of a house, and
In the present work, much as his Cape Cod oil paintings, Dauphinée House (Private collection) and Mrs. Scott's House (Maier Museum of Art, Randolph-Macon College, Lynchburg, Virginia), of the same year, Hopper creates a scene that is distinct in its familiarity. In all of these works, he uses the name of the homes' owners in the titles, indicating that these are actual buildings, yet he renders the scenes in such an anonymous fashion so as to make them feel foreign, creating the tension and anticipation that are characteristic of his best works.
In 1933, the year after he painted Kelly Jenness House, Hopper expressed the goal of his art as seeking to capture what he described as "the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature." Two decades later, in an oft-quoted statement, he 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)
Hopper's unique aesthetic, embodied by Kelly Jenness House, influenced generations of succeeding artists and its impact continues to be seen today. Lloyd Goodrich wrote of the complexity of Hopper's art that accounts for its lasting appeal, "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)