Edward Hopper (XI) – The Sailing Boats – oils and watercolours

Edward Hopper’s lifelong enthusiasm for the sea developed when he was a boy in Nyack, NY, then a prosperous Hudson River port with an active shipyard. Years later, in 1934, he and his wife built a house and studio in South Truro, Massachusetts, where he produced a number of oil paintings and watercolours manifesting his avid interest in nautical subjects: seascapes, lighthouses and light stations, sailing boats…

I have shown and commented several of these marines, including all of the lighthouses, in previous posts, but except in a few cases (like “The Long Leg”, since it includes a view of a lighthouse), I left the best sailing scenes for another post –this one–.

1 – First works

The first oil painting Hopper ever sold was Sailing, 1911, the only work he exhibited in the famous New York Armory Show of 1913. Sailing boats appear also in the oils he painted in Gloucester, but the next action pictures occur in watercolour: The Dory, 1929 and Yawl Riding a Swell, 1935.

Sailing, 1911; oil on canvas; Carnegie Museum of Art (adj2)
Sailing, 1911 (oil on canvas – 61 x 73.7 cm)

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, US

1- Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, US

2- Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, US

The next four oils about sailing may be counted among Hopper’s greatest works: The Long Leg, 1935; Ground Swell, 1939, The Lee Shore, 1941, and The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet, 1944.

I included the first of them in my post about Hopper’s lighthouses, commenting it there, and so, I won’t do it again. The second is also an undisputed masterwork:

2 – Ground Swell – The alert of WWII

Despite its bright palette and seemingly serene subject, Ground Swell echoes the themes of loneliness and escape typical of Hopper’s work. There is a group of people on board of a catboat, looking at a bell-buoy on the sea. The blue sky and vast rolling water strike a calm note in the picture; however, the disengagement of the figures from each other, their visible expectation and concern with the buoy placed at the centre of the canvas contradict the initial sense of calm. The lone dark element in a sea of blues and whites confronts the small catboat in the middle of the, otherwise empty, seascape. That buoy’s purpose –to emit a warning sound in advance of imminent danger– makes its presence in the picture quite ominous. The cirrus clouds in the sky –often harbingers of approaching storms– reinforce this sense of disturbance. Although Hopper almost always avoided offering explanations of his paintings, the signs of impending danger here may also reference a more severe disturbance: during the time that Hopper worked on Ground Swell, from August to September 15, 1939, World War II broke out in Europe.

For a long time I thought the line of vision of all members of the crew on board converged in the buoy on the port side of the yacht (somehow leading the viewer’s eye to it too). Anyway, not long ago, while collecting some data for this very post, I stumbled on a very well illustrated blog (Line and structure in Edward Hopper’s Yachts, by Timothy Haslett) with a different, and most interesting, point about this:

“[…] But there’s another line that comes down through the shadow of the mainsail and through two of the crew on the yacht. It is this line [sic] focuses us on something in the water. What It is, we do not know and cannot see but clearly the crew can see it and it is absorbing all their attention. And it is this line that makes this painting so fascinating and enigmatic.”

(So, according to this, at least two among the crew would be seeing something even closer than the buoy; not visible –not even painted…)

Ground Swell (1939 – oil on canvas, 91.9 × 127.2 cm)

Smithsonian National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA

Ground Swell (detail of the crew on board)

3 – The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet – The hope of a victory

Hopper began this painting on 10 August, 1944, but he did not complete it until after he returned to New York in December. He was inspired to paint this (like some of his other navigation pictures) by sailing with Martha and Reggie McKeen of Wellfleet –a much younger couple than he and his wife. He had been forced to give up sailing on his own by Josephine who thought it was too dangerous; anyway, she felt that the man depicted at the tiller might be Hopper himself.

In clear contrast with the menacing mood of Ground Swell, we see here a most positive and hopeful one. No doubt, the ongoing Operation Overlord just that summer (it began in June 6th and ended on August 30th) and all favourable prospects –around December that year, when he ended the painting– relative to a final victory over Germany, are quite openly represented in this great artwork.

It utilises horizontal strips of sky and sea –and here also land, parallel to them. Hopper’s only preparatory sketch for the oil reveals that he originally considered placing a standing figure near the mast rather than the two seated men seen in the final rendering. Some appreciate that the action appears rather frozen in time but I do not agree: I see the forward impulse and will say that Hopper effectively captured the push of the wind and great strength of the sea, with these two men’s momentary harmony with it.

The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet (1944 – oil on canvas, 81.5 x 127.5 cm)

Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

To make this post more complete, I am adding below an illustration, and some basic data, of The Lee Shore, 1941, which is the remaining one among Hopper’s great sailing oils from the wartime —and certainly one of the strangest ever painted by him. — (Lack of time prevents me now from writing a proper commentary, but I will surely do it in days to come).

The Lee Shore, 1941 adj
The Lee Shore (1941 – oil on canvas, 71.8 x 109.2 cm)

Private collection


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7 thoughts on “Edward Hopper (XI) – The Sailing Boats – oils and watercolours

        1. No problem 🙂 Appreciating art does not require any especial knowledge. I’m glad you liked the paintings, and whenever you wish, you will find lots more by this painter on my blog. Hopper is one of my lifelong “loves”. *Hugs* !!

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow, very nice paintings! I agree that he is a master at capturing precise instants and share your opinion that this is exactly what he seeks –and doubtlessly achieves- in The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet. Great!

    Liked by 1 person

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