Executed circa 1935.
Trained in the realist tradition of the Ash-can School, Edward Hopper always maintained a strong realist impulse in his art, even as he began to develop his own distinctive and modern style of painting. Beyond the appearance of his subject, he sought a more fundamental emotional connection, one the artist once summarized with an oft-quoted comment: "Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist." (G. Levin, Edward Hopper, the Art and the Artist, New York, 1980, p. 81)
In 1934, Hopper and his wife, Jo, moved into a home they built in the town of Truro on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A year later, with her husband settled in his new studio, Jo noted in a letter to a friend that he was at work on a new canvas (Clam Digger). She noted, too, his struggle to complete important paintings that summer, adding that "he has something on the easel with the figure of a clamdigger in it-and I'm trying to save its life for it. It hasn't been going so well." (as quoted in G. Levin, Edward Hopper, A Catalogue Raisonne, Vol III, Oils, New York, 1995, p. 242. No. O-297).
In form, Clam Digger forcefully presents the theme of the solitary figure-a theme which would increasingly become a central element in Hopper's major paintings. The composition here is outwardly simple, depicting a man, seemingly engrossed in thought, seated on the edge of a porch. He leans against the wall of a clapboard house suggestive of vernacular New England architecture. A brown dogs lies at his feet, and both are surrounded by an expansive landscape of field and trees. In the man's hand rests a clam rake. The colors are few, chiefly green, yellow, blue and white, and serve to emphasize the essential simplicity of the scene.
"From his early maturity through the end of his career," writes Levin, "Hopper was interested in the solitary figure, lost in thought. Even when other figures are visible, the central figure is often psychologically remote, existing in a private space." (Edward Hopper, p. 145).
Here, as in many of Hopper's most famous compositions, a dreamlike atmosphere pervades the work. Much of this may be attributed to his development in the 1920s of a working method that would inform nearly all his later work. "His mature oils eventually became presentations of imagined images or were based on simple sketches he made on location and synthesized in his studio. As his mature style emerged, Hopper developed several compositional formats which he frequently used throughout his career. These include a simple frontal view parallel with the picture plane, a scene viewed at an angle from above, and a subject placed on an oblique diagonal axis cutting into a picture's depth [as with Clam Digger]." (edward Hopper, p. 38).
As Levin concludes in a study on the artist: "While Hopper was in no sense a narrative painter and had long since transcended his own work in illustration, his canvases are much more than mere representations of reality-paintings which do not intend to be just descriptive or topical, but aspire to the universal. By refusing to be narrative and aiming only at suggestive symbolic content, Hopper at his best created paintings which express the psychological pulse of their time and yet speak for all time."