Hopper’s portraits of buildings, streets, villages, landscapes…, faithful as they may be, are also inner portraits. They quite deliberately represent the painter’s mood and, often times, tell some personal story which may be related to the scene depicted, but more usually do not; and in any case he just gives hints very difficult to interpret.
This splendid evening view of the intersection between Route 6 and Main Street in Orleans, Massachusetts in the early 50s is one of the few works by Hopper about which we know some facts relative to its composition and, so, valid clues to its meaning. But before telling them, it is worth the while to watch the painting attentively.
Portrait of Orleans (1950) shows an apparently quiet scene of an almost deserted, and somewhat desolated, crossroads. There is a single person at sight on the walkway in the distance, seemingly looking at the dark interior of a store. Above her figure, a clock shows it is seven o’clock (seven P.M., since the visible sunlight is low to the West) (1). One of the two streetlights is signaling a green “go” to nobody. There are two parked cars in the end of the street and a third one a bit nearer, not parked, but like frozen in the middle of the roadway. Also there is a tall lone wooden utility pole that leans to the right… but there are not any power lines on it (or by the way, in all the painting); in fact, it looks more like some oversized cross.
At this point of the inspection I do not sense anymore the initial calm or restfulness. The painting begins to look weird, troubled and disquieting, as usual with Hopper’s works —It is also evident that the point of view is odd: too low, and inclined to the right, even if not as much as the “cross” itself. It just looks like the perspective of someone into a car in movement turning the corner to the right. The problem is: why is the car turning the corner while the streetlight calls for a stop?, and why so much to the right, as if going to hit the pneumatic at the feet of the Esso gas-station signal?…
Now, it is time to know the story. Hopper repeatedly made trips with his wife Josephine to Orleans to get the right sky for some painting (possibly this one, but most probably the one that preceded it in Hopper’s plans). He reluctantly let Josephine drive for one of the trips and, as she was about to make a sharp right to avoid an oncoming car (it could well be the car immortalized in the painting), he grabbed the wheel and ran them both into a guard post. After a minor crash, he became very angry, dragged Josephine out of the car and onto the ground, and he proceeded to publicly beat her… Yes, he did!
It is widely known that E. Hopper and Josephine Nivison had a very difficult and competitive marriage, but not everybody knows he was an abuser and beat her wife (I do hate this, but I will not opine now about Hopper as a narcissistic, spoiled, coward, antisocial, obsessive, dangerous and pathetically deranged person; and moreover my main interest and concern is about his artwork).
If that aggression by Hopper was not brutal and stupid enough, Hopper never even wanted to use any of the skies he had painted on their trips to Orleans with Josephine, and he ended up improvising in his studio the one you now see here.
When painting this canvas, what he had in his mind was a unique woman (needed-loved and hated-envied at once) (2), a black car frozen in time, and a pole against which their own car crashed (if it happened in this precise place, against an “Esso” sign, I do not know). He depicted an instant before the collision; the calm immediately preceding the scare and the chaos. And he succeeded in transmitting the feeling of eeriness and of something that is going wrong and, perhaps, probably… surely, something bad will happen.
Now the non-electrified wooden post/cross suggests me a sign of repentance or penitence; and this is some good thing I might appreciate —aside of the beauty and true masterly craft of the painting as a whole.
Hopper could be a childish and conceited moron as a person, but he was an enormous artist and, to me, one of the greatest painters of the 20th century.
[De Young Museum – Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA, USA]
(1) – Hopper was quite obsessed in showing the exact time of the scenes he depicted; thus, there are dozens of paintings with well readable clocks in them. A few signal 7 o’clock, be it in the morning or evening, but I have not yet discovered the reason why –if there is a significant one…
(2) – Try to count how many paintings by Edward Hopper feature one and only woman, and nobody else… I’ve not yet done it, but I know there are many; a big lot; a substantial percentage of his complete works.
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