Most famous for his urban oil paintings of New York, at times Edward Hopper also traveled widely on trips to Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, South Carolina, Wyoming, Oregon and California, among other places. When he traveled, the artist invariably painted in watercolor. He was drawn to both ordinary and dramatic scenes, the latter exemplified by the rugged Wyoming peaks in the present work.
Shoshone Cliffs, Wyoming was one of three watercolors Hopper painted during a trip he and his wife, Jo, took to the West in 1941, during which they spent eight nights in Shoshone Valley, Wyoming. On July 9th, Hopper began this watercolor at the base of the Holy City rock formations. The dramatic red sandstone rocks prompted him to work outdoors, near the river at the bottom of the escarpment, rather than to paint in his parked car, as was his typical practice. Due to rain however, Hopper's painting was put off by three days before he could return to the site, finally finishing Shoshone Cliffs, Wyoming on July 15th. Hopper's fascination with the abstract shapes of Shoshone Cliffs recalls the many oil paintings of Monhegan Island's rocky shore that he executed during the late 1910s (fig. 1). In both this watercolor and in the earlier Monhegan scenes, the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow on the jagged natural shapes must have been what appealed to him.
As with most of his work, Shoshone Cliffs, Wyoming is far more than a casual observation of the features of a particular landscape. As a student of Robert Henri at the Art Students League in New York, Hopper became fascinated with the effects of palette, light and shadow on the overall mood of a work. In the present watercolor, Hopper focuses on the rock faces which dominate the scene, concealing a sizeable amount of the sky and ground. The rock cliffs, the sky and the shore create horizontal bands contrasted with the small, bare tree at lower center, which acts much as the solitary figures in his urban works, suggesting the isolation of the scene. Devoid of human presence, the composition emphasizes the resplendent light that transforms the rocks into a powerful relief.
As noted by Lloyd Goodrich, color and light convey much of the power and mystery inherent in the artist's work. As in Hopper's urban paintings, in his rural imagery, "Light is again a major factor...Whereas the American Impressionists had imported the soft air and light of France, he liked the strong sunlight, clear air, and high cool skies...Where the Impressionists had dissolved objects in luminous haze, with him everything was seen with complete clarity. He liked the blazing sun of summer noon, projecting sharp patterns of light and shadow; or again, the clear raking sunlight of early morning or late afternoon, striking one side of objects and leaving the other in deep shadow--a light that models forms roundly and produces a dramatic play of light and shade. In his landscapes movement is created by light more than by the forms themselves. Light streams into the picture, falls on its motionless forms, becomes a dynamic element in the whole pictorial concept." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1993, p. 120)
Hopper's depiction of the Shoshone Cliffs is a masterful example of the artist's American landscapes, with his use of stark light and shadow, suggestive of the feeling of isolation that imbues his finest works. "His art," wrote Goodrich, "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, p. 15)