We would like to thank Dr. Gail Levin for her assistance with cataloguing this lot.
In Cottages at North Truro Edward Hopper dramatically captures the effects of light on the gently rolling landscape and modest architecture of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and elevates his subject to a commentary on mid-century American life. 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 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. One of eleven watercolors he painted in 1938, Cottages at North Truro is a superb example of Hopper’s Cape Cod work and demonstrates his mastery of the watercolor medium and his celebrated ability to create hauntingly beautiful and poignant scenes from his everyday surroundings. With arresting simplicity and a nuanced interpretation of natural light, Hopper’s watercolors are some of the most vibrant and original works of twentieth-century American art.
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 on the Cape 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. 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, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Wien, 2009, p. 51).
Hopper’s accomplished watercolor technique is evident in the rich washes of Cottages at North Truro. Painted in the autumn, the undulating landscape is wonderfully rendered with varying tones of green, yellow, red and tan. Yet, before completing the sky, Hopper insisted on repeated trips to North Truro. In writing of the challenges, Jo noted “We came out—as usual—looking for a sky for E.’s watercolor—& haven’t been able to get a suitable one” (J. Hopper, quoted in G. Levin, The Complete Watercolors by Edward Hopper, New York, 2001, p. 301). Hopper’s patience was ultimately rewarded, and the sky, with subtle lavender, white and blue tones, perfectly complements the rest of the composition and its autumnal characteristics.
Permeated by profound silence and stillness, in Cottages at North Truro, the buildings sit isolated and seemingly unoccupied, with some appearing to be already boarded up for the winter months. The only sense of movement is in the rippling grasses, which themselves seem left to grow too long and dry through neglect. By cleverly capturing this atmosphere of quietude and loneliness, Hopper gives the mundane subject a lofty weight. Gerry Souter explains, “As the 1930s produced bank failures, business failures, foreclosures, and bankruptcies, Edward Hopper’s paintings of American places became icons of a rock-solid America on which a new future would be built. On another level, his interpretation of these places and the vast silences that seemed to surround them and their inhabitants also gave art writers, critics, and journalists considerable grist for their interpretative mills” (G. Souter, Edward Hopper: Light and Dark, New York, 2012, p. 131).
The isolating elements of modern society are further underscored in Cottages at North Truro by the railroad tracks that bisect the landscape. As in Hopper’s famous House by the Railroad (1925, Museum of Modern Art, New York), the tracks are bare of human life and create a sense of distance between the viewer and the community of homes in the distance. Similarly, at first glance, the telephone poles on both sides of the railway suggest modern ease of communication; yet, without any wires to form an actual connection, they are just another relic in a landscape that seems abandoned for the season. Through Hopper’s compositional skills, these simple elements come together to create “something epic and timeless, and yet…deceptively straightforward…It is Hopper’s sparseness which allows us to project the details of our own lives into his painted world, to see the lives projected on canvas as standing for all lives” (D. Lyons, Edward Hopper and the American Imagination, New York, 1995, pp. xi-xii).
Hopper’s unique aesthetic, embodied by Cottages at North Truro, influenced generations of succeeding artists and its impact continues to be seen today. “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) Moreover, Guillermo Solana and Jean-Paul Cluzel have written, “His uncommon sensitivity, his distanced perspective on the world, and his sense of drama have earned him a significant place in the history of modern art. Hopper’s work not only casts a spotlight on the birth of American modernity, but also marks the advent of a form of artistic creation entirely his own. His work is recognized throughout the world and his paintings, with their very particular atmosphere, now form part of our collective imagination” (G. Solano and J.-P. Cluzel, Hopper, exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2012, n.p.).