Like all sensible New Yorkers, Edward and Jo Hopper decamped to more forgiving climes in the summer, but not entirely because of the intolerable heat and humidity. Their retreat was almost unfailingly a New England one. There, Edward found the dunes and cottages on Cape Cod, the rolling hills and farms of Vermont, the fishing fleets at Cape Ann and the lighthouses along the coast, fair compensation for the arduous process of creating urban portraits of ordinary people alone with their thoughts and moods and brought to fruition with plodding precision and an inescapable insistence on perfection. From 1930 onward, the Hoppers would spend almost half the year in South Truro where they constructed a plain, shingled home and studio of their own. Financed by Jo’s inheritance, it was built the summer of 1934 upon a grassy knoll above Corn Hill Beach and the Massachusetts Bay surrounded by sandy hills and stands of pines and scrub oak. They would spend thirty summers here, and Edward would complete about 75 watercolors and 43 oils of local scenes as well as 20 major paintings brought from his Greenwich Village studio on Washington Square.
Hopper’s country settings often attenuated with man-made constructs are exemplary projections of his unerring eye for dynamic composition — farmhouses, roads, railroad tracks and bridges, a gas station or lighthouse — elements integrated into a singular American vision for bringing the landscape within the scope of twentieth century modernism. But Hopper was equally adept at creating a resplendent pure landscape unbroken by inorganic forms. A watercolor such as Spindly Locusts further burnishes his reputation for pitch-perfect compositions and one that relies on the palpable volume and weight of his forms as well as strong patterns of light and shadow. Hopper is among the most faithful adherents to the ideals of nineteenth-century realism of artists from Courbet to Eakins and Anschutz, Henri to Sloan, Bellows and Kent. His claim that “my aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature” is a diehard realist’s statement. It supports the idea Spindly Locusts is an accurate, if personal impression of the setting and lighting conditions observed that summer day. We know that it depicts a scene along Pamet Point Road 4 miles south of their studio-home and not far from Willfleet where the Hoppers shopped for their groceries or met friends to dine at the local restaurant.
One of only eight watercolors from 1936, Spindly Locusts succeeds brilliantly in applying the dramatic effect of raking sunlight that falls across a hillside illuminating its motionless forms. As usual, Hopper began the watercolor with a quick pencil sketch and filled it in with washes of color imbuing it with a sense of ala prima immediacy. The presumption is that the view is south-southwesterly and that it is late morning shortly before the sun rises to its apogee at noon. Whether the gable of a New England house or the canopy of a willow, form and structure are conveyed with the drama of light, and here in Spindly Locusts the most formidable display of that potential effect is the mushroom-shaped canopy of the tree on the left side of the picture plane. Perhaps it is an oak or a cedar, that is not important, but on the strength of its backlit presence and the way it anchors the entire picture, it is the keynote element that functions just as a farmhouse with a pitched roof might within the composition.
There are certainly other American artists whose watercolors have as much gravitas as their oils within their oeuvre— Homer, Sargent, and Marin come to mind. But it is not farfetched to suggest that, given that a watercolor in the strictest sense is merely a wash in color where the paper is the means by which light is revealed, the transparent style not only suited Hopper’s deepest striving to seek luminosity first but may have profoundly impacted the way in which he approached his work in oil.
Edward Hopper in front of his South Truro home, 1960. Photo: Arnold Newman
- The quantity of top-quality Edward Hopper watercolors is finite. Since 1986, fewer than 50 Edward Hopper watercolors have appeared at auction. To put this into perspective, during the same period over 2,700 Andy Warhol works on paper (including drawings) have appeared at auction.
- Of the 357 watercolors Hopper created, 215 are in museum collections worldwide, where they will likely remain. This leaves 142 watercolors in private collections that could become available for sale.
- Of the 366 oil paintings by Hopper, 321 are in museums, leaving only 45 in private collections.
- The scarcity of important works has led to a very strong market performance for the relatively few available works to appear in the marketplace over the past 10 years. The graph by Art Market Research shows that in the last 10 years, paintings by Hopper have increased at a 40% annual rate of return.
Top Oil Paintings Sold at Auction
Top Watercolors Sold at Auction
Comparable Watercolors Sold at Auction
- Slightly larger than Spindly Locusts
- Similar in scene and year (no figures, no architecture, 1938)
- Selling for $1.15 million in 2019
- Similar size and scene (no figures, no architecture)
- Slightly more simplistic in color and format
- Sold $300,000 over high estimate for almost $900,000 in 2014 – market has improved greatly since
- This sale from 2004 shows the increase in Hopper’s market, today this would be worth 3x what it sold for then