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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. Indeed, a hurricane had devastated much of the northeast coast in late August 1938, one year before Hopper completed Ground Swell. 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].
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. 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.” 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.” The exhibition was mounted and later deemed “unusually successful.” Hopper was a juror and Ground Swell was included in the biennial, from which it was acquired by the Corcoran.
September 29, 2016