Several years ago at the Vermont History Expo in Tunbridge,
Bonnie Tocher Clause was standing beside the collection of prints
she had assembled of Edward Hopper's Vermont watercolor paintings
when someone said, "These are nice paintings. Did you do them?"
That was the tipping point for Clause. She sent off a proposal
to the University Press of New England for a book that would bring
the little-known Vermont paintings of Hopper, one of the most
revered of all American artists, to a much wider audience. This
spring her book, "Edward Hopper in Vermont," was published, and the
Middlebury College Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit of Hopper's
Vermont work through mid-August.
The exhibition was timed to coincide with the publication of
Clause's book, but as is often true in alchemy, the result of the
coincidence is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken together,
the book and the exhibition present a fascinating glimpse into how
one of the country's premier 20th-century painters interpreted the
state during the Great Depression and how the landscape and state
presented themselves to an artist with an extraordinary way of
Clause started working on her book several years ago, about the
time her partner, a part-time professor at Vermont Law School in
South Royalton, began building a second home in the town.
"I clipped Vermont scenes and prints from magazines to frame and
hang on the walls," she says, describing her interest in Vermont
artists and their works. "Then I found a Hopper poster of a Vermont
landscape. As a New Yorker, I thought I knew everything there was
to know about Edward Hopper, but I did some research and didn't
find much regarding his Vermont work."
She reports that a well-regarded biography of Hopper by Gail
Levin, "Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography" (Knopf, 1995), gives
"only a few paragraphs to the artist's time in the state."
Nevertheless, Clause discovered in Levin's book that Hopper had
painted in and around South Royalton, first in 1927 and then in the
latter 1930s, and that his paintings from his time here represented
something new and different in style and content.
Thus began the chase. Clause and her partner began driving
around Royalton and nearby towns and river valleys, maps and
reproductions in hand, eyes roving to find the exact scenes that
had attracted Hopper's eye 70 years earlier. They knocked on doors.
They asked questions.
To their surprise, barns that appeared in his paintings were
still standing; churches had survived the decades; a steel bridge
was little changed. The landscapes of Hopper's paintings took real
form. Clause even found the local farm where Hopper and his wife,
Jo, roomed during the summers of 1937 and 1938. They tracked the
farmer's son, now dead, to California, and were thrilled to find
that he remembered the Hoppers staying on his farm, joining his
family for meals, going out on nice days to find interesting scenes
to paint, and bringing home finished watercolors at the end of the
Clause's excitement was contagious, which explains why the South
Royalton Historical Society invited her to exhibit her prints of
Hopper's local watercolors at the Vermont History Expo. The
homemade display led to the question about whether she was the
painter. The book proposal followed, even though the longest thing
she had ever published was an article. The University Press of New
England, in Lebanon, N. H., accepted the proposal.
And then in February 2012, at a College Art Association
conference in Los Angeles, Richard Saunders, director of the
Middlebury College Museum of Art, paused at UPNE's booth to say
hello to a good friend who is director of the press. The friend
mentioned Clause's book, still in the works. Saunders knew nothing
about it. He asked if any institution were planning an accompanying
exhibition. None were.
"A year is an incredibly short amount of time to mount an
exhibition," says Saunders, who quickly read Clause's manuscript
and contacted her. "I didn't know whether we would have critical
mass to pull it together."
However, institutions holding Hopper's Vermont watercolors were
happy to share.
"The Whitney Museum of American Art owns 11 of these. They were
incredibly generous and loaned us all they had," says Saunders.
Then he was off to make similar requests of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, other institutions, and private collectors,
particularly the one who owns Hopper's "Maple Shack," one of the
stars of the Middlebury show. In the end, the college museum
mounted an exhibition containing 18 watercolors - which is all but
four of the two dozen known works Hopper painted in Vermont.
Unlike oil paint, which is sturdier, watercolors are vulnerable
to light and thus are exhibited infrequently. The watercolors
gathered for Middlebury's show have rarely been on public view.
Despite Hopper's reputation and almost cult-like popularity, most
people have never seen these watercolors, not even as
reproductions. Supplementing the paintings are a handful of
sketches, both finished and unfinished, from Hopper's time in
Clause and Saunders, who curated the exhibition, bring
complementary perspectives to the achievement this book and exhibit
represent. Clause was diligent in her research, putting Hopper and
his visits to Vermont into the context of the state's history: the
growth of its artist communities in the 1930s; the birth of the
state highway system in the wake of the Flood of 1927; the state's
concerted effort, beginning late in the 1800s, to build a vibrant
tourist industry; the effects of the Great Depression on the state;
the inexorable decline of dairying, and perhaps most important of
all, the mythologizing that began after the Civil War.
These myths increasingly portrayed Vermont as an Eden that had
largely escaped the soulless industrialization and urbanization of
America. Within the context of these trends, Clause provides an
overview of Hopper's working technique and style.
"Researching this book was a way to discover Vermont and
meet people," Clause says. "Doing it was an adventure in Vermont
Saunders, an art historian, comes to the paintings a different
way around the barn.
"Hopper was experimenting," he says. "When he came to
Vermont, he was consciously looking for something else."
According to Saunders, what he found was something entirely
different from the themes that even by the 1930s had earned him a
reputation as a painter portraying the isolation and disconnection
of the urban experience. "While Hopper's 1927 watercolors of
Vermont are few in number," one of Saunders's exhibit notes reads,
"they all follow a consistent theme of juxtaposing the vernacular
architecture of barns against the rustic landscape."
All that had changed by 1938, when Hopper made his last visit to
the state. Some of his later Vermont watercolors are almost
abstract. Landscapes devoid of man-made structures, the powerful
interplay of light and shadow, heavier paper, thicker paint, and
organic forms dominate this later work.
This work, says Saunders, "is looser, more robust. It displays a
confidence that suggests a newfound enjoyment of the medium."
Clause and Saunders are full of praise for each other's work and
the role each played in illuminating something hitherto unexamined
in the state's history.
"There's a great sense of discovery here," says Saunders. "Most
people know Hopper's name, but his Vermont work was unknown."
("Edward Hopper in Vermont" is on exhibit at the Middlebury
College Museum of Art until Aug. 11. "Edward Hopper in Vermont," by
Bonnie Tocher Clause, is available in bookstores and at the
Nancy Price Graff is a freelance writer and