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Dispatches: Edward Hopper & the Environment

Photo Credit: Whitney Museum

by Juliana Roth

“I actually used to see Hopper painting down on the river, that was years ago when we didn’t have the apartment buildings. I used to sit on the rocks down there and he would just be painting,” Ursula D’Auria, a member of Edward Hopper House’s Visitor Services tells me. Ursula regularly speaks with the public about Hopper’s life and the history of Nyack. As a Nyack native, Ursula has championed historic preservation in the village for decades. “There were a lot of artists that used to paint down by the water.” In the early Hopper sketch from the Whitney’s archive included in this Dispatch, we see Hopper creating what seems to be one of his first river scenes.

Decades before Hopper was born, the Hudson River School art movement, led by Thomas Cole, took shape, influencing Asher B. Burand who authored Letters on Landscape Painting, which codified naturalism as the ideal in creating landscapes. “Cole’s style was marked by dramatic forms and vigorous technique, reflecting the British aesthetic theory of the Sublime, or fearsome, in nature. In the representation of American landscape, really in its infancy in the early nineteenth century, the application of the Sublime was virtually unprecedented, and moreover accorded with a growing appreciation of the wildness of native scenery that had not been seriously addressed by Cole’s predecessors,” writes Kevin J. Avery, of the movement. But what did these painters define as wild? As natural? What environments were worthy of attention?

In an essay in The Georgia Review, poet Camille Dungy asks if all writing is environmental writing. “Environment is a set of circumstances as mundane as the choice of paths we take to get home,” she writes. “When we write about our lives, we ought to do so with an awareness of the other lives we encounter as we move through the world. I choose to honor these lives with attention and compassion.” Any space we occupy then is our environment, and what we encounter there is worthy of our attention.

With this in mind, I think again of Edward Hopper and the many other painters who set up to paint on the rocks of the Hudson. I think of the water lapping at the foot of their easels, the mist on the water. It is a romantic scene, one that might represent a certain sort of environmental painter, but I also think of Hopper’s quick sketches that he’d take around New York City and come home to enliven on his canvas. The city streets are just as wild, just as environmental, as a river. As the countless fields, oceans, and trees in his body of work.

In one of my favorite Hopper Paintings, Cape Cod Morning, I find a subject seeming to exist between 2 biomes: a woman in a house looks out the window towards the woods. When I first saw the painting, I noticed the separation between interior and exterior, human-made and natural. Now, when I look again, I focus more on how the woman leans out the window, on what it means in that moment to look. I focus on how she brings these 2 worlds together.

What I think Hopper can offer us with his work is a model for paying attention. Deep attention. Knowing where to look and how to is essential for not just the artist, but those who wish to preserve and heal our environment. As writers and artists, how and when we pay attention to the land allows us to develop a new understanding of our place in the ecosystem.

Juliana Roth is a writer from Nyack, NY and  serves the Chief Storyteller with EHH.

This series exploring the Edward Hopper archives is a collaboration between Nyack News & Views and Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center.

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