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New exhibit shows how a Massachusetts town helped shape the artist Edward Hopper


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Geoff Bennett: Edward Hopper stands as an almost mythical figure in American art.

As a new exhibition at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts, reveals, the artist known for rendering the haunting isolation of urban life mastered his craft spending summers by the sea.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: The seagulls sail and squawk over Gloucester, a coastal city and historic fishing port on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

Like the gulls, artists have also long flocked here, including, 100 years ago, Edward Hopper.

Oliver Barker, Director, Cape Ann Museum: When you think about Edward Hopper and his ultimate goal to paint sunlight on the side of a house, he, in this series of homes, found that opportunity.

Jared Bowen: Oliver Barker is the director of the Cape Ann Museum, which just opened its largest ever exhibition, a show that documents house by house, landscape by landscape, how Edward Hopper found himself as a painter.

Oliver Barker: This exhibition is about place, but it is also about an artist's process and learning a new medium and seeing the impact of that of that.

Jared Bowen: Hopper had been to Cape Ann before, but, in 1923 he, took root, spending the first of five consecutive summers here painting the place.

He was single, 40, and had only ever sold one painting. So his career was stagnant, at best. He was far removed from the fame that would come from burrowing into the American psyche with his scenes of urban loneliness, most pointedly rendered in his painting Nighthawks.

Elliot Bostwick Davis, Cape Ann Museum: He was really struggling to make a living.

Jared Bowen: Elliot Bostwick Davis is the show's curator. She says Hopper was drawn to the sea and drew it himself starting as a young boy growing up in Nyack, New York.

Elliot Bostwick Davis: He lived right on the waterfront. So, from his second-story bedroom window, he could actually see vessels sailing along the Hudson.

We have in the show an early drawing that he made in pencil. And his mother was an artist, which is an interesting aspect of him.

Jared Bowen: It would be another woman, though, who ultimately changed the course of Hopper's career. In the summer of 1923, he met Josephine Nivison, an artist with whom he had crossed paths before.

Elliot Bostwick Davis: She had a lot to be proud of. Her work was being shown in the Daniel Gallery in New York. She also had her paintings selected for an important traveling exhibition in 1924, winter, which was going to be shown in both Paris and London.

Jared Bowen: In short order, the pair found both artistic and romantic connections. Also an art teacher, she pushed Hopper, moving him out of his comfort zone, where he meticulously planned his illustrations, and into watercolors.

Elliot Bostwick Davis: Watercolor is hearted harder to control. It is essentially pigment suspended in water. Ultimately, it helps him get out of his own way and to let himself be a little more spontaneous and perhaps tap into more of that subconscious.

It is maybe, for athletes, the way you think of that moment of flow. When you are in it, you know it.

Jared Bowen: She becomes his biggest champion. Do we have an understanding of why she started to step away from her own career and identify him as the person who should move forward?

Elliot Bostwick Davis: I think she was a pragmatist. She understood that one of them had to succeed. And I think she saw what it took for him to become Edward Hopper.

Jared Bowen: A year later, the pair was married. Together, the Hoppers toured Cape Ann, often capturing the same subjects, like Gloucester's landmark church.

Edward was especially drawn to fishing scenes, to the immigrant community in the city's Italian neighborhood, and to the signals of modern times, like utility poles. He also dwelled on dwellings, and many of Hopper's homes still stand, like Anderson's House and Hodgkin's House.

What do you think it is about this particular house that speaks to that kind of Hopper, is it loneliness, mysteries?

Oliver Barker: 1928, he comes back, and the painting in the show is really his first house portrait in oil. There's almost a split personality between the light facade, which is much more ornate, and then the stock facade on the front, which is much more somber.

Jared Bowen: And perhaps a metaphor now for the light and dark in Hopper's artistic life.

After that first summer in Gloucester, his career began to crack open. He sold his first work in more than a decade, this watercolor of a grand Gloucester home. He had a new artistic eye and fervor. And it, Davis says, transformed him in ways that can be traced through the rest of his career.

Elliot Bostwick Davis: I love motifs that show up here in Gloucester. Like, in Tony's House, we have the fire hydrant on a mound in watercolor.

And, of course, the most famous fire hydrant I think anyone ever painted in American art is in Early Sunday Morning, where we see it as the sole object on the sidewalk casting that long shadow. Hopper for some reason locked intersections. He loves this unusually shaped building at the corner of Portuguese Hill.

Of course, corner buildings became the subject of his nocturnal drugstore scene in 1927.

Jared Bowen: And it all happened here, at the intersection of Cape Ann, Josephine and Edward Hopper.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

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