Edward Hopper 1882 - 1967
- Edward Hopper
- Construction in Mexico
- signed Edward Hopper, l.r.
- watercolor on paper
- 21 by 29 in.
- (53.3 by 73.7 cm)
- Executed in 1946.
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1985
Tucson, Arizona, The University of Arizona, University Art Gallery, Edward Hopper, April-May 1963
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Chicago, Illinois, Art Institute of Chicago; Detroit, Michigan, Detroit Institute of Arts; St. Louis, Missouri, City Art Museum of St. Louis, Edward Hopper Restrospective Exhibition, September 1964-May 1965, no. 133 (as Construction, Saltillo)
The artist's record book, III, 1946, p. 109
Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. II, New York, 1995, no. W-347, illustrated in color p. 316
Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, New York, 2007, pp. 392, 452
Edward and Jo Hopper first went to Mexico in June 1943. The Hoppers had made South Truro, Massachusetts, their summer base since 1930. By the end of the summer of 1942, it had become clear that Cape Cod was no place for a summer idyll or even the relaxation that allowed the incubation of creative urges. German submarines patrolled the coastal waters, attacking ships, while American war planes buzzed overhead. Gasoline rationing made it impractical to tour around in search of suitable painting themes. As a consequence, the Hoppers decided not to open their Truro house for the 1943 season. On June 9, they took the train from New York's Pennsylvania Station to Mexico City.
Mexico was familiar ground for many American artists, but the Hoppers had no local connections. At home on Cape Cod they made a point of avoiding artists' colonies, and were suspicious, occasionally cranky travelers. Moreover, they were reflexively frugal and spoke no Spanish. In Mexico City, they also encountered Helen Hayes, whose Nyack house, "Pretty Penny," Hopper had reluctantly painted on a 1939 canvas. Hayes, en route to her vacation home in Cuernavaca, invited the Hoppers to visit her there. Hopper was not interested. Jo did manage a pre-arranged meeting with a friend, Dorothy Ferris, leaving Hopper to roam on his own. More fruitfully, they crossed paths with Katherine Kuh, a champion of modern American art who had been a Chicago gallery owner and was now at the Art Institute of Chicago. Kuh offered copious advice as to what Edward and Jo might see. They did finally tour some well known attractions, including Guadaloupe with its famous cathedral, the floating gardens of Xochimilco, the Aztec pyramids and the monastery of San Agustin Acolman. None of this produced anything that Hopper wanted to paint and the Hoppers keenly missed the freedom of their own car with the opportunity it provided of looking around for painting sites.
Finally the Hoppers, following one of Kuh's suggestions, went to Saltillo, a town in northern Mexico over 5,000 feet above sea level on a high plateau ringed by the peaks of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Saltillo is the capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila in that country's northeast, 430 miles north northwest of Mexico City, forty-five miles southwest of Monterrey and about 200 miles from Laredo, Texas. Importantly for the Hoppers, Saltillo was a major rail junction, and thus easily accessible. When they visited it was known as the "Athens of Mexico," for its intellectual and cultural community. (The present sobriquet, "the Detroit of Mexico" reflects its present reality as the location of General Motors, Mercedes Benz and Chrysler assembly plants.) In 1943 Saltillo was a resort town as well as a mining and agricultural center with related factories and mills. Best known for its woolen serapes, it had been founded in the late 16th century and captured by American forces during the Mexican War as a consequence of the battle of Buena Vista, which was fought nearby.
One of Saltillo's tourist attractions is its baroque Cathedral of Santiago constructed between 1745 and 1800. The Hoppers, however, chose to settle in an older section of town with original adobe buildings and a late 16th century parish church, San Esteban. They found a room at Guarhado House on Victoria Street, with a convenient restaurant nearby at the Arizpe Sainz Hotel. Hopper wrote to his New York dealer Frank Rehn: "We left Mexico City toward the end of July and have been in Saltillo ever since. It has a nice climate and is among some interesting hills. It is pretty hard to get near them or do much of anything without a car, but I have made a few watercolors, nevertheless" (August 14, 1943 as quoted in Levin, p. 364). In her own letter to Rehn, Jo explained why Hopper chose to paint from the roof of Guarhado House:
Among mts. Doesn't mean you see any of them. They surround the place, but there are always walls or towers or electric signs even, to shut out the view. E. sits out on our one story roof that affords more roofs and snips of things neither distinguished nor readily distinguishable & feeds upon that (August 19, 1943, Levin, p. 365).
Hopper painted four watercolors in the month they spent at Saltillo: Palms at Saltillo (private collection), Saltillo Rooftops (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh), Sierra Madre at Saltillo (private collection), and Saltillo Mansion (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). He painted two more watercolors in Monterrey before the couple returned to New York by train in September. Frank Rehn included Hopper's Mexican watercolors in a gallery show in November and December where they received an enthusiastic response from New York art critics.
Despite considerable grousing about food, climate, and Mexicans in general, the Hoppers began to study Spanish in 1945, in anticipation of another trip to Mexico. Part of the attraction, no doubt, was the temptation to do it right this time. The war was over and with it came the end of gas rationing. In May 1946, they drove south from New York through New Orleans and into Texas, crossing the Rio Grande at Laredo. Paradise still seemed far away as the Hoppers struggled with road food, hot weather and a car breakdown, but they finally reached Saltillo. This time they stayed at the Arizpe Sainz, the hotel whose restaurant had proved so useful in 1943. They secured a room with a door that opened out onto the roof, an ideal perch for Hopper. Once again, Hopper found the view conducive to the production of watercolors. Painting after five in the afternoon, when the heat had moderated and the light was to his liking, Hopper produced Church of San Esteban (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), El Palacio, Roofs, Saltillo (the latter generically named; both Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Construction in Mexico .
Though Hopper found Mexico a good source of inspiration for watercolor, the country inspired no oil paintings. Much to his wife's dismay, he had refused to "bring any canvas or oil paint which is calamitous" (letter to Frank Rehn, August 19, 1943 as quoted in Levin, p. 365). Hopper's watercolors were painted on the spot en plein air, as contrasted with his oil canvases that began with sketches and in their final form represented a carefully edited and painstakingly composed distillation of images. One explanation for the fact that Hopper did not readily find subjects to paint, even in watercolor, may be that he looked in nature to find compositions that suited the end results he sought. What motivated Hopper to take up brush and paint was the relatively rare conjunction of a snapshot view of the real world that conformed to his emotional and formal requirements. Brian O'Doherty, in American Masters: The Voice and the Myth (1973), cites the quotation from Goethe that Hopper carried on a scrap of paper in his wallet:
The beginning and end of all literary activity ["For literary substitute artistic. It works for that, too"] is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me, all things being grasped, related, re-created, molded, and reconstructed in a personal form and an original manner (Ibid, p. 14)
Construction in Mexico offers a striking case in point of a subject that Hopper saw and painted in terms of the same thematic and formal concerns that shaped his studio canvases in oil. These were analyzed by Lloyd Goodrich in a talk at a 1980 symposium at the Whitney Museum of Art, "Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist" on the occasion of a travelling exhibition of the same name, and subsequently published in the Summer 1981 issue of Art Journal . Goodrich prefaces his comments saying, "I would like to talk about Edward Hopper as a formal artist: a creator of form and design and an artist who turned reality, to which he was devoted, into the forms of art." Goodrich reiterates that Hopper's "realism was never merely the representation of appearances: it was the transformation of the forms of the real world into the forms of art. . . . He painted from direct observation of visual phenomena." Goodrich notes the importance here of Robert Henri, Hopper's teacher, who urged his students to paint the city as they saw it. Before Henri and the so-called "Ashcan School," city scenes were relatively rare in American art, generally considered unsuitable, because of the "ugly" subject matter. Goodrich notes the importance of light for Hopper. "In all Hopper's works, light plays an essential role. . . .By creating clear-cut patterns of light and shade, light acts as an integral element of design" Goodrich cites an early conversation he had with the artist about Hopper's dislike of the illustration work that supported him financially until he was forty-two years old. "'I didn't want to paint people gesturing and grimacing, what I wanted to do was paint light on the side of a house,' and he called the long raking light of early morning or late afternoon 'modeling forms roundly.'" Levin recounts in her biography how Hopper, on his Saltillo rooftop, worked after five in the afternoon, "when the sunlight shifted to their rooftop" (Ibid, p. 391) Construction in Mexico is a light-infused Latin American scene, the adobe walls of old Saltillo reflecting light in patterns of late afternoon sun and shadow.
Goodrich goes on to describe the bones of a Hopper design:
His design has certain marked characteristics. It is built largely on straight lines, with few curvilinear elements. The overall shape is almost always a horizontal rectangle: . . . Horizontals provided the foundation of the structure, but they are interrupted and crossed by powerful verticals which contrast strongly with them. This interaction of horizontals and verticals is a dynamic principle in Hopper's design, producing the pronounced angularity typical of it.
Certain favorite devices are evident. Often a strong horizontal across the foreground . . . acts as a base for the more complex forms above and beyond it. As Alfred Barr wrote, these foreground horizontals are 'like the edge of a stage beyond which drama unfolds.
The foreground of Construction in Mexico is a rooftop (presumably Hopper's own vantage point), the stage level for the scene that unfolds above. The adobe construction rising across the street is geometric, both horizontal and vertical. A drain pipe and utility pole offer vertical lines, as do the many windows in process of construction and in the existing building to the right. The verticality of the church cupola interrupts the diagonally slanting horizontal line of the Sierra Madre Mountain range in the distance at the same time as the curves of the cupola echo in the profile of the mountain peaks, picked out in light and shadow. The choice of a location near a church was no accident. Hopper had a lifelong fascination with turrets, towers and cupolas in architecture and painted them on many occasions.
The construction site itself, in typical Hopper fashion, provides evidence of human activity, that is, the unfinished constructions, without the necessity of including any human figures to disturb the geometric clarity and flow of the composition. Construction in Mexico falls into the larger category of Hopper architecture paintings. There is more, however, to the scene, than static evidence of the builder's art. Hopper animates the view with a visual tension between the direction of the clouds and the thrust of the background mountains. The torpedo-fronted clouds dissolve into feathers as they move across the sky from right to left, while the distant hills advance toward the town from left to right.
Edward and Jo went to Mexico three more times, in 1951, 1952 and 1955. In 1951, they returned to Saltillo and remained for a month. A combination of unusual rain and heat frustrated Hopper's attempt at another view of the Church of San Esteban, and they left, without anything to show. In 1952, they headed south at the end of December, hoping to escape the cold in New York and avoid the heat in Mexico. This time they went further south and Hopper painted two watercolors, staying longer in Mexico than planned due to car troubles (they were still driving a 1939 Buick) and Hopper's upper respiratory infection. The Hoppers returned to Monterey, Mexico, at the end of March 1955, but once there, Hopper didn't feel well enough to paint, and they returned to New York empty-handed.
After 1946 Hopper painted only six more watercolors, preferring the greater control that studio work permitted. In 1952, he served with Charles Burchfield and Andrew Wyeth as the jury for the watercolor section of a show of works on paper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His own contribution to the exhibit was Construction in Mexico.