Finding Edward Hopper's Vermont

BY BONNIE TOCHER CLAUSE

Fig. 1: Edward and Josephine N. Hopper, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 1927. Photograph The Arthayer R. Sanborn Hopper Collection Trust (2005). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Edward Hopper (1882–1967) and his work have been endlessly described, critiqued, analyzed, dissected, and reassembled, both during his lifetime and since he left this world almost half a century ago. He has been stereotyped by the images that stay fixed in our minds, with the late-night diner scene in Nighthawks the most noteworthy example. Nevertheless, Hopper can still offer up some surprises. One of these is that between 1927 and 1938, in his relentless search for new subjects to paint, Edward Hopper made at least five summer trips into Vermont with his wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper (1883–1968) (Fig. 1), with two extended stays on a farm in South Royalton. The less than two dozen paintings of farm buildings and rural landscapes that Hopper made in central Vermont are relatively unknown within this famous artist’s repertoire. Unique works with ties to specific times and places, they contrast sharply with Hopper’s urban paintings, and they are distinctive even in comparison to Hopper’s works from elsewhere in New England.

I first discovered Hopper’s Vermont watercolors some half-dozen years ago, in the course of decorating our then-new home in South Royalton, on a hillside overlooking the White River Valley. Entranced with the Vermont scenery, I sought prints for our walls that would bring the landscape inside: artists’ interpretations of what Mike Hogan, my partner, and I saw as we drove along the river and explored the winding dirt roads of our rural neighborhood. I came upon a long-out-of-print Metropolitan Museum of Art poster of Hopper’s Barn and Silo, Vermont while shopping online. Even before the poster arrived in its mailing tube, I was seeking the backstory of the painting.

I learned that Edward Hopper’s Vermont sojourns and paintings were actually well documented, even if not widely known.1 In the catalogue raisonné of Hopper’s work, Gail Levin identified some twenty-two watercolors as “Vermont.”2 Lloyd Goodrich (1897–1987), Levin’s predecessor as the Hopper expert at the Whitney Museum of American Art, included large color reproductions of a number of the Vermont paintings in Edward Hopper (1964).3 Through further research I was able to determine the current ownership and whereabouts of the Vermont watercolors. I also garnered additional details about the story of the Hoppers’ various trips into Vermont.4

Fig. 2a: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Rain on River, 1938. Watercolor on paper, 14 x 20 in. Steine Family Partnership. Photograph © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library.

The Vermont watercolors are different from the Hoppers I knew—in subject, composition, and palette—but they are unmistakable as portraits of Vermont. I was especially struck by the small series of paintings of the White River. Mike and I set out to trace the path of the Hoppers’ travels in Vermont, piecing together fragments of information, like clues in a scavenger hunt. The primary evidence was in the works themselves—watercolors and drawings done by Edward, and sketches made by Jo from the passenger seat of their car as they drove along country roads, stopping when something caught their eyes as the possible subject for a painting. The notations that Jo had made in the Hopper ledger books, both descriptions of specific works and lists of the couple’s “wherebouts” allowed us to narrow down the probable itineraries of various years.5 We were then able to identify many of the paintings’ locations, comparing views through the windshield with Xeroxed reproductions taped to the dashboard of our Subaru. We found the place where Hopper painted Rain on River (Figs. 2, 2a), for instance, not by looking at the course of the river—which has been altered somewhat since Hopper saw it—but searching for a match with the backdrop outline of the mountains. Silhouetted against the sky, this feature remains as when Hopper captured it in 1938.

In the summers Edward and Jo Hopper left the concrete canyons and the heat of New York City, like most of their artist colleagues, and traveled, first to the artists’ colonies in Maine, at Cape Elizabeth and on Monhegan Island, and to Gloucester, Massachusetts, places they had each frequented in the years before their marriage in 1924. In both Massachusetts and Maine, Edward painted the architectural icons of New England: the lighthouses of Maine and the classic houses, rooflines, and church steeples of Cape Cod.

Fig. 2b: The White River in Royalton, Vermont, August 2011, looking east from the intersection of Routes 107 and 14. Photograph © Bonnie T. Clause.

Fig. 3: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Near the Connecticut River, Bellows Falls, Vermont (Horse and Vermont Barn), 1927. Watercolor on paper, 14 x 19¾ inches. Private collection. Reproduction courtesy of Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York.

In the ledger book Jo recorded a detailed description of Horse and Vermont Barn, augmenting her original notations when the watercolor was finally sold in 1960. This painting’s last recorded sale was in 1977, through the Kennedy Galleries, and its current ownership and whereabouts are unknown. Hopper’s preparatory sketch provides clear documentation of his process in developing the final composition.

Fig. 4: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Artist’s Ledger–Book III, 1924–1967, 119, Pen and black ink, graphite pencil, colored pencil, and collage on paper; commercial cloth binding. Overall (closed): 123⁄16 x 7⅝ x ¾ in.; Overall (open): 123⁄16 x 15¼ x ½ in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Lloyd Goodrich (96.210a). © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins.

Fig. 5: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Vermont (1927). Graphite pencil on board. Sheet, 1311⁄16 x 199⁄16 inches. © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. Digital Image © Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Fig. 6: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), (Vermont Landscape), (1936). Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper, sheet (irregular), 21⅞ x 29⅝ inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest (70.1087). © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art.

Vermont Landscape is one of seven Vermont watercolors that remained in Hopper’s studio after his death and were bequeathed to the Whitney Museum. This watercolor and two other hillside scenes—Vermont Hillside (private collection) and Mountain Meadow (Parrish Art Museum)—date from the Hoppers’ 1936 trip into the Plainfield and East Montpelier area.

Fig. 7: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Vermont Trees I, ca. 1936–38. Pencil on paper, 9½ x 15¼ inches. Private collection.

One of the relatively rare finished drawings that Edward Hopper released for sale, it most likely relates to the three hillside landscapes done in 1936. The owner reported that the drawing was purchased in May 1957, in Detroit, Michigan, through Lawrence Fleischman, who was a significant link for Rehn Galleries artists to collectors outside of New York City. Fleischman later moved to New York and established the Kennedy Galleries, where he continued to sell Hopper’s work.
Fig. 8a: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Vermont Sugar House, 1938. Watercolor on paper, 13½ x 19½ inches. Louis Moore Bacon collection.

This is the most “Hopper-esque” of the Vermont works, similar in subject and perspective to Hopper’s paintings of Cape Cod barns. The Slaters’ “sugar shack,” where the sap collected from maple trees was boiled down over a wood fire to make syrup, was the sole architectural icon that Hopper chose to paint in South Royalton. Located in a high meadow above the farmhouse, with the ridge that Hopper dubbed “Bob Slater’s Hill”—the subject of another watercolor—forming the background, the refurbished sugar house is now a residence. Jo Hopper wrote a delightful description of the Slaters’ farm: “It’s a lovely land. They had charming animals on the place. A calf named Nancy, with eyes like a Hollywood star used to lick E. Hopper’s coat tails and follow him about.”8

Fig. 8b: The Slaters’ sugar house on Wagon Wheels farm, early 1940s. Courtesy of Robert Alan Slater.

By the time of the Hoppers’ first trip to Vermont, in the summer of 1927, Edward’s work was being shown and sold by Frank K. M. Rehn, who became his lifelong gallerist and dealer. With cash from Rehn’s sale of an oil painting, the Hoppers bought their first car, a used Dodge, facilitating their travel to new and far-flung places. After a return trip to Cape Elizabeth, Maine, they drove to Charlestown, New Hampshire, where the Whitney Studio Club had rented a mansion and established a summer outpost for member artists. From there the Hoppers drove west, across the Connecticut River and into Vermont, probably on a series of day trips, recorded by Edward in five watercolors of farm buildings. One of these is reproduced here, along with Hopper’s preparatory drawing and the relevant page from the ledger book with his sketch of the finished painting (Figs. 3 through 5).

Fig. 9a: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), White River at Royalton, Vermont, 1937. Watercolor, 20 x 28 inches. Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University ( 2007.103). Bequest of Sheila Hearne. Photograph courtesy of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University.

White River at Royalton was a gift of gratitude from Edward Hopper to his urologist, Allister McLellan, following Hopper’s surgery and hospitalization in 1948. Long out of sight, in 2007 this painting was bequeathed to the Johnson Museum of Art, where it has been exhibited for the first time since 1964.

Fig. 9b: Site of White River at Royalton. Photograph © Bonnie T. Clause.

Fig. 10: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Gravel Bar, White River, 1937. Watercolor on paper, 19½ x 27½ inches. Gift of Roy R. Neuberger. Collection Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York. Photography by Jim Frank.

This was the first Hopper acquired by collector Roy Neuberger, who found it “fresh and inspiring.” Neuberger went on to purchase Hopper’s Barber Shop, the large oil that is now the centerpiece of his namesake museum.

In 1934, thanks to an inheritance from Jo’s uncle, the Hoppers built a small house on the dunes overlooking the sea in South Truro, Massachusetts. This was their summer home for the rest of their lives, their base until Edward hit a dry spell, with nothing on Cape Cod that he wanted to paint, spurring them to pack painting gear and picnic provisions into their car—by then a Buick—and to venture forth in search of new material. In the summers of 1935 and 1936, this odyssey led them again into Vermont, each time for a few days of scouting and painting. Jo Hopper’s notes record that they were near Plainfield and East Montpelier, where Edward painted meadows, hillsides, and roadside scenes that could be almost anywhere in central Vermont (Figs. 6 and 7 ).

By 1937 Edward Hopper had become nationally famous. In May of that year a four-page article in Life magazine featured him as “one of America’s best living painters,” with five of his large oils reproduced in color. He had just won a prestigious prize from the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and Life included a photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt examining the winning painting, Cape Cod Afternoon. That August the Hoppers returned to Vermont, this time boarding for a month on the South Royalton farm called Wagon Wheels, owned by Bob and Irene Slater. This was during the Great Depression, when tourism had become a lynchpin of the Vermont economy, and the Slaters, like other Vermont farmers, were opening their doors to “paying guests” to supplement their income.

The Hoppers slept upstairs in the farmhouse and ate all of their meals with the farm family and the other occasional guests, and they must have been observed while painting and sketching at various viewpoints on the farm property and along the road. Nevertheless, the presence of the famous artist in this rural area of Vermont—just two months after his prominent placement in Life magazine—seems to have gone completely without notice within the White River Valley. The same was true when the Hoppers returned to Wagon Wheels the following year, 1938, for another month’s stay.

Fig. 12: Edward Hopper (1882–1967), Windy Day, 1938. Watercolor on paper, 20 x 28 inches. Collection of William S. Beinecke and the late Elizabeth Beinecke. Photography by Jerry L. Thompson.

Windy Day remains with its original owner, William S. Beinecke, who purchased it as a gift for his wife, Elizabeth, in 1957. It is one of the least known of Edward Hopper’s Vermont works.

While Hopper’s visits left no traces in South Royalton, the places that he painted are still there, and most are remarkably unchanged. With the help of the town clerk and the town historian, Mike and I were able to locate the Slaters’ farm property, the farmhouse, and the sugar house (Figs. 8a, b). We also contacted Alan Slater, who was seven years old when the Hoppers stayed with his family. Now in his mid-80s and living in California, Alan spoke with me at length on the phone, sharing his memories of the New York artists and life on a Vermont farm in the 1930s. The Edward Hopper that he describes—as being fond of Alan’s father, helping with chores, and trying to milk a cow (unsuccessfully)—was an affable man, certainly a departure from the usual characterizations of the artist as grumpy and unsociable. Slater also has fond recollections of Jo Hopper, and he still owns a watercolor portrait of himself that Jo painted on the farm in 1937.

The correspondence between Irene Slater and Jo Hopper, now scattered through various collections, also casts Edward Hopper in an unusually human light, indicating that the Hoppers’ time in South Royalton was relaxed and pleasant; as late as 1966, Jo was still writing to Irene with recollections of “Happy memories in Vt.” The Hoppers were known to have a contentious marriage, something that Jo, at least, usually made no attempt to hide; her diaries and many of her letters to others are filled with plaints and accusations.6 Apparently, however, this side of the Hoppers’ relationship was not displayed during their time in the Slaters’ farmhouse, bespeaking either their comfort in that setting or at least their willingness to be on good behavior when they were with the farm family.

The sojourns at Wagon Wheels Farm also seem to have freed Edward’s artistic expression. During the two seasons in South Royalton he focused less on painting farm buildings and hillsides to focus on the river, very likely the subject that he was seeking all along in his explorations of Vermont. The result was a series of seven watercolors of the White River, all painted within a few miles of South Royalton, between the towns of Bethel and Sharon (Figs. 2, 9–12). These are peaceful scenes that capture Vermont’s quiet beauty. Rare among Hopper’s mature works in being pure landscapes, with only traces of human presence and architectural form, they record the nuances of light, color, and texture, in sky, water, mountains, and meadows, at various times of day and in different kinds of weather. To one who sees the distinctive palette in both the real landscape and the watercolors, it seems clear that in Vermont Hopper achieved his aim: to paint “the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature.”7 Indeed, Hopper’s transcriptions find agreement with the impressions of those who know Vermont intimately. As one Vermonter put it to me, with typical Yankee laconicism, “He really got it, didn’t he?”

Fig. 11: Book cover, Edward Hopper in Vermont, illustrating Edward Hopper’s (1882–1967), First Branch of the White River, Vermont, 1938. Watercolor over graphite pencil on paper, 21¾ x 26⅞ inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1938, soon after Edward Hopper returned to New York from Vermont. In a letter dated January 26, 1939, to MFA curator W. G. Constable, Edward Hopper wrote a succinct explanation of the incentive for his sojourns in South Royalton: “These valleys of the branches of the White River and the White River valley itself are, to me, perhaps the finest in Vermont.”
Edward Hopper in Vermont is on view at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, Mahaney Center for the Arts, Middlebury, Vermont, from May 23 to August 11, 2013. Hopper’s watercolors and drawings of Vermont will be exhibited together and in Vermont for the first time. For information call 802.443.5007 or visit museum.middlebury.edu.

Bonnie Tocher Clause is the author of Edward Hopper in Vermont (University Press of New England, 2012) and guest curator for the exhibition of Hopper’s Vermont works at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.

1.Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. Updated and expanded edition. (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), 297-8, 305.

2.Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné 4 vols. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with W. W. Norton, 1995).

3.Lloyd Goodrich, Edward Hopper (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1964), 119–120.

4.The key collections for my research were the Edward and Josephine Hopper Research Collection, Frances Mulhall Achilles Library, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries Records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

5.The Hoppers kept detailed records of Edward’s works in ruled ledgers, purchased in Woolworth’s. With notations by Jo and sketches by Edward, the five volumes of ledger books are in the Whitney Museum of American Art.

6.Levin, 2007.

7.Hopper, “Notes on Painting,” in Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Edward Hopper: Retrospective Exhibition (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1933).

8.Jo Hopper to Lila Harnett, February 11, 1964, Archives of American Art.
back to top