Coast Guard Boat I, with its economy of detail and emphasis on light, embodies Edward Hopper's singular transcription of his surroundings into distilled atmospheres. Whether focused on the urban cityscape of New York or the crisp imagery of New England in the summer, Hopper succeeds in creating hauntingly beautiful yet tension filled landscapes of quotidien sights.
Hopper and his wife Josephine made their first trip to Cape Elizabeth, Maine in 1927, following the purchase of a new Dodge automobile. While Hopper had spent time in Maine beginning in 1914, this was his first summer in the environs of The Lighthouse at Two Lights. In 1927, "The Hoppers covered 320 miles and found themselves near Portland at the lighthouse named 'Two Lights' on Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Dating back to 1828, two stone towers about 300 yards apart had provided one constant light and one flashing beacon. In 1924 the US Coastguard decommissioned the Western tower, leaving the 65-foot cast iron eastern tower built in 1874, the keeper's house and a fog horn station that sounded every sixty seconds in foggy conditions...Lighthouses had been a favourite subject since Hopper's art school days, but the magnificent structure at Two Lights seemed to obsess him...For Hopper, the location was like a magnet that drew him back over the years." (G. Souter, Edward Hopper: Light and Dark, New York) Hopper's first trip to the area resulted in two major oils: Lighthouse Hill (1927, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas) and Captain Upton's House (1927, Private collection).
The Hoppers arrived in Cape Elizabeth for their second summer on July 4th, 1929 after having driven north from New York. Returning to familiar territory and artistically fertile ground, Hopper resumed his study of the small coastal town, and more specifically, the Coast Guard settlement at Two Lights. Hopper was fascinated with the rugged way of life of these Coast Guard men. They slept in the station, away from their families, whose houses surrounded the lighthouse. He found this isolation enchanting and their old fashioned way of life, lacking modern conveniences, to be particularly compelling.
Despite his completion of two oils, The Lighthouse at Two Lights (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Coast Guard Station (Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey), the majority of Hopper's work in the summer of 1929 was in watercolor. 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 and filled it in with washes of color giving works such as Coast Guard Boat I a sense of immediacy and freshness. Coast Guard Boat I, which belongs to a series of watercolors painted along the shore of this coastal town, depicts a small coast guard boat tethered to the rocky beach. Hopper has employed a limited but dazzling palette of predominately white and blue tones. Forceful dabs yellow represent the beacons of light on the ship while touches of green mark the bundles of seaweed strewn along the sandy beach. The fluidity and spontaneity of delicate washes in the sky, shore and water is juxtaposed with the more controlled application of color in the boat and landscape.
Water allowed Hopper to introduce an element of motion into an oeuvre that is largely defined and dominated by stillness. Often, as in Coast Guard Boat I, the juxtaposition of the moving water with the other pictorial elements acts a foil, further heightening their weight and solidity--the massive hull of the ship set against the slightly rippled surface. The beauty and frisson of Coast Guard Boat I lies in this inherent contradiction- between weightlessness and heft, motion and stillness. This artistic balancing act between the carefully modulated depiction of the ship and hilly landscape and the aqueous fluidity of the water and shore creates an inherent push pull. This tension is echoed by the ropes, which tether the boat to the shore. At once wanting to be of the sea yet firmly harnessed creates a sense of restlessness and even agitation to the otherwise very serene, idyllic image.
Carl Little notes, "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) Indeed, New England, and more specifically Maine, had provided rich and fruitful subject matter since the mid-19th century. Generations of artists captured the landscape, finding fascination with the rugged coastal terrain or heroic way of life of the local population, or both. Winslow Homer, in particular, created a singular Maine aesthetic in his magnificent depictions of Prout's Neck. While his imagery tended to focus on the inhabitants, he shared with Hopper the ability to capture the essence of a place. Andrew Wyeth, a generation after Hopper but still considered to be an American realist, was likewise fascinated with the area. Wyeth, like Hopper, was captivated by the perceived loneliness and isolation of the rugged, salt of the earth New Englander. In works such as Rum Runner, Wyeth provides a visual embodiment of the figure only implied in Coast Guard Boat I.
"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) Emblematic of Hopper's best New England watercolors, Coast Guard Boat I is perpetually fresh and utterly American.