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Rob Perrée: Letters to Hopper

Letters to Hopper

The New York Times

July 12, 2013
New Insight Into Hopper in a Girlfriend’s Letters

A stash of letters written by a secret girlfriend and unearthed a century later is a tantalizing discovery. When the recipient of those letters was a reclusive American painter whose work explored alienation and loneliness, such a find can shed new light on an entire oeuvre.

In early 2009, the art historian Elizabeth Thompson Colleary was granted access to a box of letters to Edward Hopper that had never been studied. She has now curated “My Dear Mr. Hopper: The Story Starts Here,” an exhibition at the Edward Hopper House Art Center that argues that the letters’ contents should significantly update our understanding of the artist’s work.

The show presents 20 of the 59 original letters, all but one found neatly folded inside their envelopes in the attic of Hopper House, the artist’s childhood home, in Nyack. Sent to Hopper by Alta Hilsdale from 1904 to 1914, most with the salutation “My Dear Mr. Hopper,” the letters chronicle a previously unknown (and frequently cantankerous) romantic relationship. They are displayed alongside relevant selections and reproductions of Hopper’s work.

“When you reframe the art within the context of these letters,” Ms. Colleary said, “you see that the way the couples interact in Hopper’s imagery is born of his personal experience.”

That personal experience, as evidenced in Ms. Hilsdale’s notes, included a romance with a reluctant, often dismissive companion who offered a litany of excuses and accusations. “Oh, I know I’m terrible about answering letters,” she wrote in the first extant letter, and in the next, “You are a most astonishingly impatient person.”

The latter was postmarked July 22, 1904, Hopper’s 22nd birthday; both letters were mailed to Nyack from Sauk Centre, Minn., where Ms. Hilsdale, then 20, was raised. From there, the correspondence traces the pair’s interactions in Paris, where Hopper traveled on three occasions while Ms. Hilsdale was there, and in Manhattan, where numerous letters were sent between various addresses, including two from Washington Square West to Hopper’s Washington Square North studio, just around the corner.

Hopper’s association with Ms. Hilsdale was significant not only for its duration but also because Hopper had only two other documented girlfriends before his marriage to Josephine Nivison two weeks before he turned 42. However, there is no record that Hopper, who died in 1967, shared Ms. Hilsdale’s existence in his life with anyone, perhaps because of her recurrent snubs. “He’s trying to find a fulfilling relationship with her,” Ms. Colleary said, “and he’s constantly being frustrated.”

The exhibition illustrates how just such a dynamic was manifested in Hopper’s artwork. Near the gallery’s entrance are four original early works: two landscapes, a seascape and a harbor scene, “to situate him here in Nyack,” Ms. Colleary said, “to show who he was before he met Alta.”

The 15 other images in the show are reproductions of works that have been recontextualized by the letters. In particular, the exhibition includes paintings of couples whose body language would seem to reflect Hopper’s relationship with Ms. Hilsdale. In “Couple Near Poplars,” a watercolor painted in 1906, the man (tall, like Hopper) rests his arm on the waist of the woman, her expression stern, her arms crossed over her chest. “He’s reaching out to her and she could not be more stiff and unresponsive,” Ms. Colleary said.

She noted that such archetypes appear repeatedly in Hopper’s work; she called them “the pleading man” and “the rigid woman.” They’re there in “A Theater Entrance,” an early watercolor of a couple standing outside a theater. “She’s in that same rigid demeanor,” Ms. Colleary said, “and he’s gesturing toward her — the pleading man. Whatever is going on, this is not a happy couple.”

Unhappy couples appear in later paintings, too, like the handsome young pair on a nighttime porch in “Summer Evening,” from 1947, where the man turns toward the woman, who looks downward and disgruntled. “That pleading that was first documented in the letters becomes a prototype for the rest of his life,” Ms. Colleary said.

The exhibition’s wall text guides visitors in understanding how the letters have illuminated several of Hopper’s most enigmatic images. One is “Summer Interior,” created in 1909, a year when he and Ms. Hilsdale had been in Paris, and when the letters were especially contentious, filled with pretexts and rejections. In the painting, a despondent young woman slumps on the floor and leans against a bed.

“He painted it right after he returned from Paris, after they were scrapping,” Ms. Colleary said. “He’s pursuing her and she’s pushing him away, and then he paints this. This is why the letters are so important. We’re never again going to say, where did ‘Summer Interior’ come from? It was the relationship falling apart.”

The relationship ended in 1914, when Ms. Hilsdale, in her final letter, informed Hopper that she had married. “I cannot tell you how sorry I am to have made you unhappy,” she began in an unusually delicate script, and signed with her new name, Alta Hilsdale Bleecker.

Yet, as “My Dear Mr. Hopper” elucidates, Hopper’s experience with Ms. Hilsdale seems to have remained with him. “You read the letters,” Ms. Colleary said. “You look at what they tell us about his emotional life during one of his earliest romantic pursuits. Then you line up the artwork and you see the story unfold.”

“My Dear Mr. Hopper: The Story Starts Here” runs through Oct. 20 in the Arthayer and Ruth Sanborn Gallery at the Edward Hopper House Art Center, 82 North Broadway, Nyack, Rockland County. A presentation by the show’s curator, Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, will take place in the gallery on July 16, 7 to 9 p.m. For more information: edwardhopperhouse.org or (845) 358-0774.