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Adam Greenhalgh, “Edward Hopper/Ground Swell/1939,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/131206 (accessed December 02, 2016).

 

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Overview

Edward Hopper’s lifelong enthusiasm for the sea developed when he was a boy in Nyack, New York, then a prosperous Hudson River port with an active shipyard. Years later, in 1934, he and his wife built a house and studio in South Truro, Massachusetts, where he produced a number of oil paintings and watercolors manifesting his avid interest in nautical subjects.

Despite its bright palette and seemingly serene subject, Ground Swell echoes the themes of loneliness and escape typical of Hopper's oeuvre. The blue sky, sun-kissed figures, and vast rolling water strike a calm note in the picture; however, the visible disengagement of the figures from each other and their noticeable preoccupation with the bell buoy placed at the center of the canvas call into question this initial sense of serenity. The lone dark element in a sea of blues and whites, the buoy confronts the small catboat in the middle of an otherwise empty seascape. Its purpose, to emit a warning sound in advance of unseen or imminent danger, renders its presence in the picture ominous. The cirrus clouds in the blue sky—often harbingers of approaching storms—reinforce this sense of disturbance in the otherwise peaceful setting. Although Hopper resisted offering explanations of his paintings, the signs of impending danger here may also reference a more severe disturbance: during the time that Hopper worked on Ground Swell, from August to September 15, 1939, World War II broke out in Europe.

Entry

In a vast expanse of open sea, a catboat heels gently to starboard as it navigates a course that has brought it close to a bell buoy.[1] Under feathery cirrus clouds and a brilliant blue sky, the boat’s three passengers and pilot gaze at, and presumably listen to, the buoy’s bell, which tilts toward them as it crests one of a sequence of rolling waves. Although Edward Hopper is renowned for lonely urban scenes that have led his work to be understood as emblematic of the mood of the modern city and the isolation of its inhabitants, he was also a dedicated painter of nautical subjects.

Born in Nyack, New York, Hopper spent his formative years sketching the maritime industry of this bustling shipbuilding port on the Hudson River.[2] From 1930 onward, Hopper and his wife, Josephine “Jo” Nivison, whom he had met in art school, spent summers painting in Truro, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. In 1934 they built a cottage in South Truro; Ground Swell was painted in the adjacent studio. Jo conveyed the anticipation surrounding Hopper’s completion of Ground Swell in a letter to his sister:

Ed. is doing a fine large canvas in studio—sail boat, boys nude to the waist, bodies all tanned, lots of sea and sky. It ought to be a beauty. Frank Rehn [Hopper’s dealer] will be delighted. Everyone has wanted Ed to do sail boats. He has only 2 or 3 weeks to finish it—and it will need some fine weather with rolling seas to go look at. Dense fog today but scarcely any rain here either.[3]

Ground Swell numbers among a group of similar seafaring subjects Hopper executed during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Along with paintings such as The Long Leg [fig. 1] and The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet [fig. 2], Ground Swell has come to be seen as exemplary of the artist’s recurring theme of escape.[4] It is a motif familiar from better-known paintings like New York Movie [fig. 3] and Eleven A.M. [fig. 4] that take as their focus liminal spaces: thresholds, windows, railroads, and so forth.[5] If Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks [fig. 5] conveys the anxiety of the urban experience through the acidic hue and high contrast of its artificial illumination, Ground Swell’s cool palette and balanced, rhythmic composition would seem to illustrate the peaceful solace the artist, a notorious recluse, sought in his idyllic coastal retreat.[6]

Ground Swell’s subject is not uncommon in American art. It recalls, for example, Thomas Eakins’s Starting Out after Rail [fig. 6] and Winslow Homer’s Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) [fig. 7], the sparkling vibrancy of which has been interpreted as corresponding to the nation’s incipient optimism a decade after the Civil War.[7] Whereas Homer’s sailors gaze intently at a clear horizon connoting future promise, Hopper’s are transfixed by the bell buoy, which strikes a dark note, literally and figuratively, in the otherwise sunny scene.

The function of a bell buoy is to issue auditory warning of submerged dangers or channel boundaries. Hopper’s bell clangs in response to the painting’s titular ground swell, a heavy rolling of the sea caused by a distant storm or seismic disturbance. Unseen trouble may lurk beneath the surface or beyond the horizon of Hopper’s otherwise serene painting. The visual rhyming of the ocean swells and the cirrus clouds in the upper register might reinforce such a portentous interpretation. Cirrus clouds are often harbingers of approaching weather, forming at the outer edges of hurricanes and thunderstorms.[8] Indeed, a hurricane had devastated much of the northeast coast in late August 1938, one year before Hopper completed Ground Swell.[9] The accuracy and specificity of Hopper’s sky indicate, if nothing else, that it is one the artist had seen, rather than one born of imagination or synthesis [fig. 8] [fig. 9] [fig. 10] [fig. 11] [fig. 12] [fig. 13] [fig. 14] [fig. 15] [fig. 16] [fig. 17].[10]

Alexander Nemerov has noted that while Hopper worked on Ground Swell, from August to September 15, 1939, news of the eruption of World War II was broadcast on American radios. As radio waves brought news of distant conflict to US shores, the bell buoy in Ground Swell sonically registers the reverberations of some unspecified distant turmoil.[11] Hopper was famously resistant to explaining the meaning of his paintings, but he broached, obliquely, the relation between the war and his work in a 1940 letter to his friend, the artist Guy Pène du Bois. Explaining that Jo had wept in a grocery store when she learned of the fall of Paris, Hopper resignedly concluded: “Painting seems to be a good enough refuge from all this, if one can get one’s dispersed mind together long enough to concentrate upon it.”[12] The artist’s canvas, like the catboat’s white canvas sail, seemingly offered a means of escape.

The ramifications of the war were certainly felt in the North American art world. The minutes of an April 1943 meeting of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s board of trustees, for instance, testify to a debate regarding the suitability of holding the Eighteenth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, “in view of the existing war situation.”[13] The exhibition was mounted and later deemed “unusually successful.”[14] Hopper was a juror and Ground Swell was included in the biennial, from which it was acquired by the Corcoran.[15]

Adam Greenhalgh

September 29, 2016

Inscription

lower right: EDWARD HOPPER; on reverse of frame: frame made for / Edward Hopper by / Carl Sandelin framemaker / 133 E 60th St NYC.

Provenance

(Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery, New York); purchased 1943 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington;[1] acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History
1940
Second Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Paintings, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 9 March - 21 April 1940, no. 93, repro.
1940
Survey of American Painting, Department of Fine Arts, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 24 October - 15 December 1940, no. 329, pl. 121.
1940
The Cranbrook-Life Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Cranbrook Museum, Bloomfield, Michigan, 17 May - 2 June 1940, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
1943
Eighteenth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 March - 2 May 1943, no. 98.
1944
Sport in American Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 10 October - 10 December 1944, no. 69, repro.
1947
Sports and Adventure in American Art, Milwaukee Art Institute, 15 February - 30 March 1947, no catalogue.
1949
The Coast and the Sea, a Survey of American Marine Painting, Brooklyn Museum, 19 November 1948 - 16 January 1949, no. 64, repro.
1950
By the Sea [15-venue tour organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York], first 7 venues did not include Ground Swell; Washington Workshop, Washington, D.C.; Rhode Island League for Arts and Crafts, Providence; Pennsylvania College for Women, Pittsburgh; Quincy Art Club, Illinois; Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester; Hamline University, St. Paul; Albion College, Michigan; State Teachers College, Potsdam, New York, 14 September 1950 - 7 June 1951, no catalogue.[1]
1950
Edward Hopper Retrospective Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Detroit Institute of Arts, 11 February - 2 July 1950, no. 52, pl. 20.
1953
Judge the Jury, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 13 February - 22 March 1953, no catalogue.[2]
1955
Sport in Art from American Collections Assembled for an Olympic Year, Time and Life Building Reception Hall, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts; Denver Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; Dayton Art Institute, 31 October 1955 - 28 October 1956, no. 53, repro.
1964
Edward Hopper, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Detroit Institute of Arts; City Art Museum of St. Louis, 29 September 1964 - 9 May 1965, no. 36, repro.
1967
Sao Paolo 9: United States of America / Estados Unidos da America, Edward Hopper [and] Environment U.S.A., 1957-1967, Museum of Modern Art, Sao Paulo; Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 22 September 1967 - 24 March 1968, no. 21.
1972
Edward Hopper: Fifteen Paintings, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach; Pasadena Art Museum, 12 January - 23 April 1972, no catalogue.
1976
Corcoran [The American Genius]. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 24 January - 4 April 1976, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
1980
Americans at Work and Play, 1845-1944, University Art Museum, University of Texas at Austin, 6-20 March 1980, no. 36, repro.
1980
Guy Pène du Bois: Artist About Town, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University, Evanston, 10 October 1980 - 10 May 1981, no. 98, repro.
1981
Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Cincinnati Art Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington; Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga; Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Des Moines Art Center; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, 23 September 1981 - 21 May 1983, no. 54, repro.
1985
Henri's Circle, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 April - 16 June 1985, unnumbered checklist.
1989
Edward Hopper, Musée Cantini, Marseille; Fondation March, Madrid, 23 June 1989 - 4 January 1990, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
1998
Forty-Fifth Biennial: The Corcoran Collects, 1907-1998, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 17 July - 29 September 1998, unnumbered checklist, repro.
2005
Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 27 August 2005 - 29 April 2007, checklist no. 93.
2007
Edward Hopper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 May 2007 - 11 May 2008, no. 74, repro.
2009
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
2012
Hopper, Museo Thyssen-Bornemizsa, Madrid, 12 June 2012 - 28 January 2013, no. 47, repro.
2013
American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
Exhibition History Notes

[1] A checklist and the itinerary of the exhibition tour are in the Archives of the Museum of Modern Art, New York: CEII.I/43/(2); copies in NGA curatorial files.

[2] Virginia Museum of Arts, Richmond: Official Record of Receipt, 21 January 1953; copy in NGA curatorial files.

Bibliography
1940
"A Remarkable Exhibition of Italian Paintings." Richmond Times-Dispatch (24 February 1940).
1940
Cottrell, Ann. "2 Unknown Win Medals in Biennial." Richmond Times-Dispatch (10 March 1940): 18.
1940
"Here, There, Elsewhere." New York Times (10 March 1940): 160.
1943
Berryman, Florence S. "Corcoran Art Gallery's Biennial Exhibition [exh. review]." The Washington Sunday Star (21 March 1943): E:5.
1943
"Corcoran Gallery Buys Work of Seven American Artists [exh. review]." The Washington Evenig Star (18 March 1943): 2.
1943
The Poe Sisters. "Corcoran Art Preview Here Draws Crowd [exh. review]." Washington Times Herald (21 March 1943): B:1.
1943
Watson, Jane. "Corcoran Show, Although Small, Displays Freshness and Spirit [exh. review]." The Washington Post (21 March 1943): L4.
1944
J. D. M. "Sport in American Art: Boston Show is 'Big League Stuff' to Sports Writers." Magazine of Art 37 (December 1944): 297 repro.
1945
Edward Hopper. American Artists Group Monograph no. 8. New York, 1945: n.p., repro.
1947
Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: 83.
1949
Goodrich, Lloyd. Edward Hopper. Harmondsworth, England, 1949: pl. 20.
1950
Aldow, Dorothy. "Edward Hopper, Yankee Classicist [exh. review]." Christian Science Monitor (25 February 1950): 12.
1950
"Edward Hopper: Famous American Realist has Retrospective Show." Life 28, no.16 (17 April 1950): 104, 105 repro.
1950
"News of Art and Artists [exh. review]." Washington Star (1 October 1950): C:3.
1957
Tyler, Parker. "Hopper/Pollock: The Loneliness of the Crowd and the Loneliness of the Universe: An Antiphonal." Art News Annual 26 (1957): 95, 98-99 repro.
1962
New York Graphic Society. Reproductions of American Paintings. New York, 1962: 95 under no. 6004, repro.
1965
Stevens, Elisabeth. "A Nosegay of 19th Century Art." The Washington Post (27 June 1965): G:7.
1968
Wilmerding, John. A History of American Marine Painting. Salem, Massachusetts, 1968: 37 repro., 42.
1971
Goodrich, Lloyd. Edward Hopper. New York, 1971: 120, repro. 125.
1973
Phillips, Dorothy W. A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art. 2 vols. Washington, D.C., 1973: 2:113-14, 113 repro.
1977
Matusovskaia, Elena Mikhatovna. Edward Hopper. Moscow, 1977: pl.16.
1977
Young, Mahonri Sharp. American Realists: Homer to Hopper. New York, 1977: 198 repro.
1980
Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist. Exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Hayward Gallery, London; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf; Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1980-1982. New York, 1980: 43, pl. 185.
1980
Stein, Susan Alyson. "Hopper: The Uncrossed Threshold." Arts 54 (March 1980): 150 repro., 160.
1980
Weyergraf, Bernd. "Licht von der Seite und Eyes Examined: Hopper und Marsh." Amerika: Traum und Depression, 1920/40. Exh.cat. Akademie der Kuenste, Berlin, 1980: 154 repro.
1981
Levin, Gail. "Hopper's America." Bijutsu Techo 33 (March 1981): 164 repro.
1982
Baur, John I. H. American Masters of the Twentieth Century. Exh. cat. Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City, 1982: 60.
1987
Levin, Gail. Twentieth-century American Painting. London, 1987: 209.
1987
Wilmerding, John. American Marine Painting. Rev. ed. of A History of American Marine Painting, 1968. New York, 1987: 179 repro., 180.
1991
Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. The Biennial Exhibition Record of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1907-1967. Madison, Connecticut, 1991: 154.
1993
Little, Carl. Edward Hopper's New England. San Francisco, 1993: pl. 19.
1994
Kranzfelder, Ivo. Edward Hopper, 1882-1967: Vision der Wirklichkeit. Cologne, 1994: 106 repro.
1995
Constantino, Maria. Edward Hopper. Greenwich, 1995: 82, 83 repro.
1995
Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné. 4 vols. New York, 1995: 1:83; 3:266, 267 repro.
1995
Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography.1st ed. New York, 1995: 314-315, 360, 426.
1998
Burchard, Hank. "Corcoran Biennial: A Retreat in Reverse [exh. review]." The Washington Post (7 August 1998): N: 55, repro.
1998
Dorsey, John. "Framing the Century: Corcoran Gallery Highlights the Best Works from Its Forty-four Biennials [exh. review]." Baltimore Sun (3 September 1998): F:3, repro.
1998
Gedzelman, Stanely David. "Sky Paintings: Mirrors of the American Mind." Weatherwise 51 (January/February 1998): 65 repro.
1998
Kilian, Michael. "Corcoran Exhibit Traces Art's Meanderings." Chicago Tribune (23 August 1998): 3.
1998
Lewis, Jo Ann. "The Corcoran Biennial: Delivery on Collection [exh. review]." Washington Post (19 July 1998): G:1.
1998
Shaw-Eagle, Joanna. "For Corcoran, 'Forty-Fifth' is the No.1 Exhibit [exh.review]." The Washington Times (26 July 1998): D:1, repro.
1998
Simmons, Linda, et al. The Forty-fifth Biennial: The Corcoran Collects, 1907-1998. Exh. cat. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1998: cover, 47 repro.
1999
Mecklenburg, Virginia M. Edward Hopper: The Watercolors. Exh. cat. National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C., 1999: 141, 161.
1999
Stephen, May. "The Old and the Beautiful." Art News 98, no.7 (Summer 1999): 36.
2000
Cash, Sarah, and Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 185 repro.
2000
Smeaton, Suzanne. " On the Edge of Change: Artist-Designed Frames from Whistler to Marin." In The Gilded Edge: The Art of the Frame. Edited by Eli Wilner. San Francisco, 2000: 70, 80 repro.
2001
Coyle, Laura, and Dare Myers Hartwell, eds. Antiquities to Impressionism: The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, DC, 2001.
2001
Strand, Mark. Hopper. New York, 2001: 22 repro., 23, 25.
2002
Moss, Dorothy. "Ground Swell." In A Capital Collection: Masterworks from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Edited by Eleanor Heartney. London, 2002: 109, 110 repro.
2004
May, Stephen. "Edward Hopper's Maine." Portland Magazine (July-August 2004): 36-37, repro.
2006
Ernst, Eric. "American Classics, Up Close and Personal [exh. review]." Southampton Press (6 July 2006): B:1, B:7.
2006
Genocchio, Benjamin. "Thrilling and Hypnotic: Masterworks with Major Impact [exh. review]." The New York Times (11 June 2006): 12 repro.
2006
Goodrich, John. "Museums: Travelling Icons of American Art [exh. review]." The New York Sun (6 July 2006): 16.
2006
"Hopper Work is Subject to Talk." Southampton Press (22 June 2006): B:8.
2006
Lerner, Mark. "Hopper's 'Ground Swell,' Awash in Neglect." The Washington Post (1 January 2006): 5.
2006
Maschal, Richard. "Strokes of Genius [exh. review]." The Charlotte Observer (1 October 2006): E:3, repro.
2006
"Mint Museum to Host Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery." Antiques and the Arts Weekly (6 October 2006): 17 repro.
2006
Shinn, Susan. "Viewing Masters: 'Encountering American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art' Opens at the Mint [exh. review]." Salisbury Post (12 October 2006): D:7, repro.
2007
Bennett, Lennie. "The Coming of Age of American Art [exh. review]." St. Petersburg Times (18 February 2007): 9L repro.
2007
Gopnik, Blake. "Edward Hopper and the Rising Tide of War- Wide Angle: Dissecting 'Ground Swell'." The Washington Post (18 November 2007): M:1, 8-9 repro.
2007
Matheny, Lynn K. "Edward Hopper." American Art Review 19, no. 5 (September-Ocotber 2007): 169 repro.
2008
Nemerov, Alexander. "Ground Swell: Edward Hopper in 1939." American Art 22, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 50-71, esp. repros. cover and 51.
2008
Pittura Americana del XIX secolo. Exh. cat. Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia, Italy, 2008: 225 repro.
2008
Strand, Mark. Hopper. Barcelona, 2008: 50-52, 51 repro., 54, 111, 114.
2011
Greenhalgh, Adam. "Edward Hopper, Ground Swell." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 248-249, 282-283, repro.
2011
Little, Carl. Edward Hopper's New England. San Francisco, 2011: 17, 56, 57 repro.
2011
Marco Goldin. Van Gogh and Gauguin's Journey: Variations on a Theme. Translated by David Kerr. Exh. cat. Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 2011: 162, 163 repro.
2011
Strand, Mark. Hopper. New York, 2011: 26, 27 repro.
2013
Lipiński, Filip. Hopper wirtualny: Obrazy w pamiętającym spojrzeniu. Ph.D. dissertation, Uniwersytet Adam Mickiewicz, Poznań, 2013. Toruń, 2013: 404, 523, 615, color fig. 179.
2015
Beaux Arts Magazine no. 373 (July 2015): cover, table of contents, guide insert.
Technical Summary

The painting is executed on a medium-weight, plain-weave fabric that is pre-primed with a thin cream-colored layer that does not obscure the weave of the canvas.[1] It has a replacement stretcher, but all the original tacking margins are intact, indicating that the painting is very close to its original dimensions. Graphite squaring-off lines are visible in several places along the edges and very faintly through the sky near the right edge. This technique is usually an indication that the composition was either transferred from a smaller drawing or possibly from a photograph. The paint was brushed on in opaque but quite thin layers in many places, leaving ground showing through in the initial buildup of the color. The most heavily painted area is the water, which has been applied in many thick layers. It has a convoluted texture made by repeatedly applying and dragging the thick layers of paint with the brush. Traction crackle in the water reveals earlier layers of a darker blue, which probably wasn’t fully dry when subsequent layers were added, hence the wide cracks. The sail was thickly painted with a palette knife. To add the rigging on the boat Hopper utilized graphite from a pencil, a somewhat unusual technique. Although the early treatment history of the painting is unknown, at some early point in its stay at the Corcoran Gallery of Art it was wax-lined and stretched onto a new support, possibly by Russell Quandt, one of the collection’s early conservators. In 1980, Robert Wiles relined it with the same adhesive and restretched it on another new stretcher. He also cleaned the painting, removing grime, varnish, and staining, applied a new synthetic resin surface coating, and carried out minimal retouching.[2]