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Shedding Light: Hopper’s Lighthouse and Buildings

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Edward Hopper may not be informally referred to as “The Painter of Light,” that distinction belongs to Thomas Kinkade, but Hopper’s emotive use of pigments to evoke scenes of bright morning sun, late night electric illumination, and shadows of intense darkness is second to none, title or not.

Best known for pieces such as “Nighthawks,” and “Rooms by the Sea,” Edward Hopper’s facility at capturing the delicate dance between light and shadow is unrivaled. In few other works is this as evident as in “Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine” (1927), “Room in Brooklyn” (1932), or “Drug Store” (1927).

The subject matter of this painting, a lighthouse and buildings at Portland Head in Maine, is almost secondary. Hopper has deftly created an intimate scene of intense illumination. Which paints the lighthouse in stark relief against both the background and foreground.

In fact, the foreground and background are both utterly devoid of details. If you removed the subject matter from the painting, it would be almost impossible to tell whether this were in fact a seascape veduta or just a piece of palette paper with blue and yellow pigments awaiting mixture by the artist.

These elements only take form in the wake of the impression left by the towering lighthouse, so bright in its highlights that it meets the sky – there is almost no demarcation between them – and so dark in its shade that it creates a contrast between itself and the sky that is effectively as stark as the one at the horizon.

In this piece there is an element also of geometric interest; both the lighthouse and horizon meet the blankness of the sky at oblique angles; the sky is parallel, the lighthouse nearly perpendicular. This creates a harsh, white negative void in the upper left of the painting that is almost relieved by the intensely blue-shaded half of the lighthouse.

There is also a sense of infinity in this painting, as the shadow of the lighthouse and the lighted half meet their counterparts in the blue of the sea and the white of the sky. Yet, there is more intrigue in the sharp terminating line between the light and shadow of the lighthouse than there is at the horizon.

This could be because it is not only the subject matter but because it is in focus, though one might also say it is because the subject matter itself captures the near-continuity of the natural world. Sea becomes lighthouse, lighthouse becomes sky, and sea and sky meet in the distance.

Nonetheless, all of this does nothing to detract from Hopper’s marvelous facility in capturing the intensity of the light and shadow, which he does so remarkably, and with such little detail, using evidently only a few different pigments.

Hopper once stated that his “aim in painting” was to capture the “most intimate reaction to the subject as it appears.” It is in his use of contrasting light and dark tones – that signify light and shadow – that Hopper has underscored this initiative.

And, in “Lighthouse and Buildings,” it is as clear as the sun on a bright seaside morning.

Add Hopper’s Lighthouse and Buildings to Your Home: Quality Art Prints from an Art Museum Gift Store

Bringing Hopper into your home is a great way to pay homage to his artistic ingenuity, and you can do it with high-quality art prints and posters from an art museum gift store.

Visit MFAShop.com, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s art museum gift store, which carries a wide range of Hopper prints and posters, as well as entries from Hokusai, Singer-Sargent, Monet, Homer, and countless others.

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