Edward Hopper executed Charleston while traveling in the South Carolina town in 1929. Though Hopper never wanted for suitable subject matter in New York City, home for most of his adult life, his true love was to travel and to paint the scenery he found across America. Jo and Edward Hopper traveled extensively, exploring Massachusetts and Maine, South Carolina, Wyoming, Oregon and California, among other places. These journeys were particularly meaningful for Edward, as they afforded him an entirely new world of subject matter for his oils and watercolors.
Hopper first achieved success in the medium of watercolor when he painted a group of several notable works in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1923. Gail Levin writes: "Hopper used watercolor with a sense of confidence, improvising as he went along. He would apply the pigments with only a faint pencil sketch outlining the structures. What interested him was not the creation of textures of the manipulation of the medium, but the transcription of light. Light was the language through which Hopper expressed the forms and views before him. His watercolors were simply recordings of his observations, painted almost entirely out-of-doors, directly before his subject matter." (Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. I, pp. 65-66)
These early watercolors explore the unique architecture of the simple neighborhoods in the fishing community, which the artist found useful for its expressive potential. The works achieved considerable critical acclaim when they were first exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1924, success that encouraged the artist to continue his work in the medium. From this point he began watercolor painting in earnest, recording the ordinary architecture and scenery that so fascinated him on the road.
In discussing Hopper's exploration of these subjects, Levin writes: "His interest in architecture, which is first evident in childhood drawings, persisted throughout his career. He often painted both interior and exterior views of buildings, either without figures, or with generalized figures as subsidiary elements... He apparently chose to paint buildings not for their beauty, but for their fascinating forms--a rather abstract sensibility he tried to deny when it was brought to his attention. In Two Puritans (1945, Private collection), the houses seem strangely animated, as if they had personalities all their own. The windows, shutters, and doors read almost like facial features, elements of personalities that make their presence felt." (Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist, New York, 1981, pp. 44-45)
In Charleston Hopper focuses on the buildings themselves--but as with most of his work, this watercolor is much more than a casual observation of the local landscape. As a student of Robert Henri at the Art Students League in New York, Hopper became fascinated with the effects of palette and light and shadow on the overall mood of a work. In signature watercolors like Charleston, the artist's studied use of harsh, shadow-casting light manages to imply the feelings of loneliness and solitude that pervade so much of his work.
A sketch and description of this work appear in the artist's record book, III, page 123.