Excerpted from the book
American Painting


American Main Street

Everyone smiles at the sight of one of the colorful, busy, naive paintings by Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson). The reaction, as much nostalgic as aesthetic, seems almost instinctive. A Beautiful World stirs our memory of a time when that was how we saw the world. Barns and farmyards, maple trees, covered bridges, quilting bees; we all long to return to a time when the world was at once simple and busy with such happy details. Perhaps we have grown jaded, but her vision is irresistible, conjuring up as it does an America we may have visited only in our childhood dreams.

Edward Hopper, on the other hand, presents us with an American scene that is both familiar and haunting. We know Hopper's world, and there's nothing grandmotherly about it. Trained by Robert Henri in the manner of the Ashcan School, he worked for a number of years as an illustrator. Even so, a painting like New York Restaurant is carefully crafted to carry a heavy freight of heightened reality.

Hopper's trademark is light that one critic said "illuminates but never warms." In this painting, for instance, it reveals a scene of apparent convivality to be one of actual isolation. We have his own word for it that this disturbing effect was deliberate: "In a specific and concrete sense," he said, "the idea was to attempt to make visual the crowded glamour of a New York restaurant during the noon hour. I am hoping that ideas less easy to define have, perhaps, crept in also."

It is in his concern with intangibles that Hopper goes beyond realism and naturalism. A master at rendering the solitary moment, he creates a world of solitary people who seem to be waiting, but who also seem to have lost hope. New York Movie and Nighthawks, intense studies of the alienation of modern life, are made all the more haunting by their understated literalness. Hopper does not tell a story in these city scenes, but his images evoke a sense of profound isolation.

The Lighthouse at Two Lights combines two more of Hopper's favorite subjects, the sea and architecture. Again, his paradoxical light makes the structure seem both sturdy and inaccessible. In Carolina Morning he manages to counterbalance the brilliant red of the woman's dress with the clear light of wide open space. Artfully understated, Hopper's people, and the rooms, houses, stores, bridges, and street fronts they haunt, anticipate the world of "Waiting for Godot."

Norman Rockwell may be America's best-known illustrator. A whole generation grew up with his Saturday Evening Post covers, and reproductions of his storytelling portraits of American life decorate many a parlor, kitchen, and waiting room. If Marriage License is too cloying for some tastes, its masterly composition--with the light glowing in the window of the dark office of the Justice of the Peace--is undeniable. Rockwell's stock American types are little more than caricatures, but there is charm in their sense of well-being.

In Rockwell's Freedom of Speech, a collage of heads conveys the strength of a country committed to such a fundamental right, while in Southern Justice he indulges in a rare moment of social criticism. Shuffleton's Barbershop and his humorous Triple Self-Portrait confirm Rockwell to be a skillful illustrator; when he resists sentimentality and cuteness, he can be an astute observer of the American scene.

Andrew Wyeth and Christina's World may be America's favorite painter and America's favorite painting. Critics still debate the painting's meaning: Is it a study in desolation, even madness, or is it simply a melodramatic illustration in a naturalistic style? Christina, crippled by polio, seems to yearn to reach the farm buildings on the horizon. Yet Wyeth undermines the intensity of her pose by his overscrupulous attention to the landscape. The grass, for instance, is a tour de force; one critic called it a "tracery of abstract writing." The viewer may conclude that the whole composition is too mannered, too contrived, to be persuasive.

Wyeth's love for the land is sincere; consider Soaring, a bird's-eye view of a landscape. If his human figures tend to suffer from a Rockwell-like superficiality, his landscapes and interiors show great sensitivity.

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