Edward Hopper has been described as a pictorial poet who recorded the vast spaces between humans and their environment and to look upon one of his paintings is to witness the gap between you, him, his art and your own world telescope out and then back again. Speaking personally, Hopper vitalises what I can only refer to as ‘nothingness’, telling us that ‘something does not come out of nothing’ and he emphasised solitude, introspection and our voyeuristic relationship with those qualities in his paintings. His works possess an indelible nostalgia.
Although he is well associated with the United States of America through famous works such as Nighthawks which recorded the inter war lonely cityscape of Greenwich Avenue in New York City and Morning Sun, where his wife sits in solitude upon a bed elevated above an impersonal city street, it is Hopper’s Mexican paintings that most interest me.
I spent part of my childhood in the very city that Hopper and his wife Jo stayed in on several occasions, I have visited the hotels and restaurants he frequented, gazed upon the same rooftop views and sat in my bedroom window listening to the sounds of animals as they went about their business in the cold desert night. I too carry the open spaces of Mexico, the blue stained mountains of Saltillo and its cluttered, stepped cityscapes in my heart.
Hopper once said:
‘To me the most important thing is the sense of going on. You know how beautiful things are when you’re travelling’
He went to Mexico in the summer of 1943 with his wife, Jo, in search of new inspiration. Their first stop was in Mexico City but they then travelled north, arriving 500 miles later in Saltillo, the city where I spent part of my childhood and a city referred to as the ‘Athens of Mexico’ because of the large number of twentieth century intellectuals it attracted. He made several visits there and to other parts of the country.
Hoppers first trip to Mexico was made by train from Penn Station because his original plan to travel by car from New York City to Cape Cod for a summer holiday was derailed by war time petrol rationing. Cape Cod was no longer a place of quiet escape because of the increasing threat from the German submarines which patrolled the nearby sea and American planes which droned in warning, overhead. I am intrigued by their decision to substitute the quiet patrician life they, and other visitors to Cape Cod, tend to lead for the spontaneous bustle of Mexico but maybe they decided to leave their comfort zone, who knows? When Hopper arrived in Mexico City, he disliked its hustle and bustle but managed to visit Guadaloupe and its famous cathedral, the floating gardens of Xochimilco, the Aztec pyramids and the monastery of San Agustin Acolman. He wasn’t inspired to paint any of them though, hence his decamping to the cooler, less populated north of the country after advice from Katherine Kuh, a champion of modern American art who had been a Chicago gallery owner and was now based at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Possessed of a cooler, drier mountain climate, Saltillo is sheltered by the Zapalinamé mountains where El Cerro del Pueblo and its 4-metre cross stand protectively over the people and serves as capital of the desert state of Coahuila, which stretches all the way to the US border, 250 miles away. The Hoppers settled in an older section of Saltillo where original round edged adobe buildings sat cheek by jowl with old colonial architecture and a late 16th century parish church, San Esteban. That first visit, they took a room at Guarhado House on Victoria Street close to a decent restaurant at the nearby Arizpe Sainz Hotel and in total visited Saltillo on three occasions. Their second trip to the city in May 1946 was after petrol rationing ended and they drove in their car from New York via New Orleans and crossed into the country at Laredo, across the shallow muddiness of the Rio Grande whose waters form a natural boundary between the two countries. Car breakdowns, torpid weather and problems finding food to their taste caused problems but upon their arrival, the couple chose to stay at the Arizpe Saint on Victoria Street, where his room let out onto a large roof terrace from which he could paint en plein air. They had already begun to learn Spanish and this stay proved productive: the Church of San Esteban (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), El Palacio, Roofs, Saltillo ( both Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Construction in Mexico were the more assured results.
He wasn’t terribly enamoured with Saltillo itself though, finding it already too modern and developed for his tastes but in 1951 the couple returned for a month long stay although the weather caused them tribulation: rain and heat stymied another attempt at capturing the Church of San Esteban on canvas. In 1952 they returned in December in the hope of enjoying balmy weather, devoid of that intense summer heat, and ventured further south, resulting in two more watercolours. At the end of March 1955, they visited Monterey but illness sent them back to New York.
Going back in time to his first visit, the August of 1943 saw Hopper writing letters to his New York dealer Frank Rehn about his stay:
“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.”
Hopper missed a car terribly and chafed against the loss of independence in those war years.
The hotel is two blocks up from the Alameda although friends in Saltillo tell me that a couple of the houses the Hoppers stayed in have been demolished. Two houses to the left of the Arizpe Sainz Hotel lies another of the Hoppers’ holiday rentals but it has apparently been modified out of recognition since Hoppers [and my] time. As a child I went swimming in the Sainz hotel pool with family friends who had children of a similar age and mistily I can recall faded colonial splendour, which provided much needed shade from the hot sun of the narrow city streets in high summer. There was ornate painted metalwork staircases perfect for poking little fingers through and peering down at smart couples as they arrived for dinner and cocktails. It’s restaurant mimicked a tropical rain forest, lush with big leaved plants, poinsettias and bright bowls of dahlias everywhere and the bright glassy tones of voices after sundowner tequilas.
Local doctor and Saltillo resident Khan Norfolk told me:
“The Guajardo family owned three neighbouring houses and the family house, where Hopper stayed, was demolished in 1972 and an office building raised in its place which hosts a branch of the State Institute of Employment. The family still lived there in a penthouse although the members of the Guajardo family I knew have left town. Ramiro Guajardo was a schoolmate and I went up to the apartment twice.”
According to Khan Norfolk, the Guajardo family owned a sketch drawn by Hopper and he was shown it because as a boy he was studying the history of art and Hoppers; work formed part of the syllabus. Hopper painted several watercolors from the hotel roof, sitting there early in the morning as the sun rose over the Zapalinamé mountains and returning late in the afternoon as the shadows grew longer, turning grey dust to purple, throwing the contours of the blocky Mexican architecture in stark relief. His lofty studio afforded him unparalleled views across the flat roofed city buildings, punctuated with the spiked towers of the Baroque eighteenth-century cathedral, a reminder of the Saltillo’s roots as a Spanish settlement although its rapid urban development was resented because it threatened to obscure the views Hopper craved. He found Saltillo congested, noisy and anarchic in its permissiveness regarding what was built and what could be demolished. For a man intrigued by space and the intractable nature of isolation and loneliness, the growth and change going on in the streets around him must have been challenging as spaces were filled in and new connections forged. According to the Cinema staff, Hopper complained about the brightly lit advertising signs and hoardings that littered downtown and impinged upon the ‘purity’ of the desert light and he struggled to find the shade of blue green pigment to capture the unique shade of the mountains, In a letter to Rehn, his wife Jo explains thus:
“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.”
Khan Norfolk recalls that “the house he painted from the roof of the Guajardo’s belonged to some aunts of theirs” and when I was living in Saltillo, I recall that it housed a hairdressers called Belleza Margot where local women gathered to chatter and the stylists stepped outside for respite from the heat of the dryers, their aprons pulled out of shape by rows of metal hairclips pinned to the hems. Khan lived directly in front of this building for about 5 months and it is now a protected building- not because of Hopper but because it is unique. Another building painted by Hopper was the cinema, called El Palacio which I also visited as a child to watch Hanna Barbara cartoons and Snoopy, dubbed into Spanish. Today, there is a movement to protect this Art Deco landmark building because civic authorities wanted to demolish it and build a shoe shop. The third building Hopper captured is the Teatro Garcia Carillo, now preserved as a local museum and cultural centre and the building you see going up in ‘Construction’ is now a rather rundown hotel.
Although Gail Levin (Hoppers main biographer) visited Saltillo in 1983, forty years after Hopper’s first visit and recorded that the cityscapes painted by Hopper had remained surprisingly intact, ‘even to the assortment of chimneys and cornices and the sign of the El Palacio cinema that Hopper depicted in the watercolor in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’, it is clear that in the ensuing years, there has been change and change that is not always welcome either in these days where we have become more aware of the layers of a city as they are peeled away and about what we stand to lose if we do this sin ninguna conciencia.
Hopper painted a watercolour of the interior of his car with his wife in the foreground and the view outside the car is of the valley leading to San Antonio de las Alazanas near Arteaga. Hopper apparently enjoyed driving around the mountain roads, and was fond of the wild, dusty landscapes of the Chihuahuan desert, exploring its “sky islands” where cooler and wetter micro-climates have nurtured waterfalls and mountain pools lined with miniature forests and banks of ferns. Yet feet away can be found the more ‘typical’ desert plants: honey mesquite, creosote bushes, Queen Victoria’s agave and grasses ‘belly high to a horse’ as reported by early settlers. Much of his Mexican work includes these mountains and desert foothills in the distance.
In his paintings, Hopper was clearly drawn to the domestic architecture; the simple squared off forms of the local houses, the filigree colonial trimmings, colours, textures and decorative carving which referenced the culture of the Tlaxcaltec and Guachichil people. There’s rebar and rooftop water tanks, squat chimneys and discoloured low walls- rarely seen evidence of the things that service and facilitate our busy human lives. Homes were built from local materials quarried and sourced from the Chihuahuan Desert; walkways and private homes were covered with the famous local Saltillo tile and the cities colonial centre was constructed from pink marble, which casts a flattering warm and rosy shadow.
Hopper limits his work to the domestic though and sets the cityscapes and roofscapes against the distant mountains, pitching their domestication against the wildness of those distant mountains which encircle the city. There’s the domed roof of the church of St Esteban, a little mission church dating back to 1592 which aimed to ‘civilise’ the indigenous people and sits there, significant, permanently pointing skywards although the Hotel Coahuila which Hopper painted, next to the front facade of the church is now demolished. There’s the blue skies, soft orange adobe foreground and the mountains which change colour as the earth turns towards and then, away, from the sun. Each element is separate but possesses commonality too: lonely and discrete sedimented layers upon the earth. His Mexican construction is a master class of patterns of lines and light, shade and darkness; created when the evening sun shifted towards the roof tops and the daily labouring in the broiling sun ceases. As the adobe building goes up, Hopper records its geometric shape, the vertical lines of utilitarian features such as drain pipes and electricity poles against the vertical height of the church cupola and diagonal slant of the Sierra Madre mountains and he records also, the soft curves of the church and mountains too. The light changes things but, for now, this is what exists and we also know that humans are involved too although we don’t see them.
Looking at these works, I see the similarities between his New York and New England works, the same sense of watching human life and its activities at a distance, the same solitude and points of stillness, enhanced by translucent washes of colour which capture the transience of desert light and sets it against the solidity of architecture. The light is a form of design in Hoppers work and he once told Katharine Kuh that “there is a sort of elation about sunlight on the upper part of a house”- from his rooftop eerie, Hopper was ideally placed to identify how light falls upon a city. The idea of sunlight liberated from earthly effects was something Hopper found compelling and many of his works show what happens when us humans stand in the way of light, move in and out of its illumination, or try to utilise it.
Unlike Nighthawks which homed in on a very personal desolation within the close and stifled confines of a city neighbourhood, these watercolours capture and emphasise provincial isolation on a much larger, municipal and natural scale- we can see where the city ends and the rest of the world starts. The paintings made from the rooftop of Hotel Ariape Sainz are particularly effective at this: Roofs, Saltillo, Mexico (Whitney Museum of American Art), El Palacio (Whitney Museum of American Art), Church of San Esteban (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Construction, Saltillo (collection of Charles E. Buckley). Each painting was produced without the preliminary work that characterised his oils, done ‘direct from nature, outdoors’. Hopper appeared to search his surroundings for a real world view that matched his psychological and artistic needs. His compositions were chosen because they reflected his mind’s eye, although he did once comment that he hoped he was not “a realist who imitates nature” in his desire to report on the ‘phenomena of light’ as Kuh refers to it in her book, My Love Affair with Modern Art. Ultimately, this led to him referring to himself as a ‘prisoner’ in Saltillo as he waited for the late afternoon rain showers to cease and the light to match his internal requirements and in the meantime, he projected his irritation onto the people, the climate and the architecture.
Thanks so much to Nic for writing such an interesting blog!