Lighthouses and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine by Edward Hopper

Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Eizabeth, Maine by Edward Hopper (1927)
Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Eizabeth, Maine by Edward Hopper (1927)

The Lighthouse
by Becky Jennings

The mighty lighthouse stands secure,
Undaunted by the restless sea;
Ravaged by the changing tides
And buffeted by winds blown free.

Yet, it sheds its beacon straight and true,
Unfaltering in the bleakest night,
Guiding every passing ship
Uncertain of the course that’s right.

May we be diligent and true,
Dedicated to the right
And like the stalwart lighthouse stand
A beacon in the darkest night.

Having spent my early working life on ships travelling around the world I have an affinity for lighthouses which would often signal landfall after many days and sometimes weeks without seeing land.   There is something very majestic and imperious, dare I say, even romantic about lighthouses as they rise skyward on rocky headlands guiding ships  carrying seafarers homeward bound to the arms of their loved ones.

Time magazine cover  December 24th 1956
Time magazine cover
December 24th 1956

Today I am featuring a beautiful watercolour featuring a lighthouse by one of my favourite American artists, Edward Hopper.   Although he was not alone in depicting lighthouses in his paintings, nevertheless Hopper was one of the few artists who made the tall structures the focus of his compositions and by doing so gave them an iconic presence.  For Hopper, lighthouses were majestic architectural structures and things of beauty.  His name was synonymous with depictions of lighthouses so much so that when Time magazine did a story about his life in their 1956 Christmas issue, the James Chapin portrait of Hopper on the cover included a lighthouse in the background.

During the early days of his career  Hopper would often spend the summers in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and he had become fascinated with lighthouses and went on to depict these tall structures in several media.   It was in the summer of 1927 that he painted the watercolour depicting the Portland Head Light entitled Lighthouses and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine which I am featuring today.  The painting resides in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  This lighthouse was the first one to be built in the state of Maine, which at the time was still part of Massachusetts.  It sits on the headland overlooking the main shipping route for vessels, which are approaching from the south, prior to entering Portland harbour.   Up until this time there were no lighthouses on this part of the coast and the local merchants continually petitioned that one should be built so as to avoid ships and their cargoes being lost due to going on the rocks whilst approaching the busy port.   In 1787, two more people were killed when a vessel went aground on Bangs Island (now known as Cushing Island) close to Portland Head and this disaster and loss of life resulted in George Washington authorising the building of a lighthouse on the headland so as to avert any further shipping disasters.  Washington arranged that the lighthouse was to be built by two local Portland stonemasons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols.  As the State was not awash with money he stipulated that the materials used to build the lighthouse should be “taken from the fields and shores, which could be handled nicely when hauled by oxen on a drag”.  The tower was built of rubble stone and Washington set a deadline for the build telling the two masons that he wanted it completed within four years.  It is interesting to note that the original plans for the build was for a fifty-eight foot tall structure but on completion it was realised that, at that height, the light would not be seen by ships approaching from the south and so the tower had to be raised to a height of seventy-two feet.  The tower was completed during 1790 and first lit January 10, 1791.

Portland Head   Lighthouse (as seen today)
Portland Head
(as seen today)

Hopper’s watercolour of the Portland Head lighthouse is one of the most picturesque, and by far the most reproduced of his works.  In the painting we see the lighthouse and to the right are the lighthouse keeper’s house and garage which, as the light is now fully automated and does not need the presence of a lighthouse keeper, since 1992 has become the Portland Head Light Museum.  Hopper decided to use some artistic licence in his depiction of the lighthouse and the surrounding area for he omitted from his watercolour a number of fences and paths which he believed would detract from the finished work.   It is interesting to note the limited palette used by Hopper for this work which enhances it.  He used light blue for the sky and a darker blue for the ocean.  The roofs of the buildings are of a reddish-brown and the grass in the foreground is gold and light green.

 In Edward Rowe Snow’s book The Lighthouses of New England, he described the lighthouse and its surroundings as:

“…Portland Head and its light seem to symbolize the state of Maine – rocky coast, breaking waves, sparkling water and clear, pure sea air…”

Gail Levin, art critic and author of the Hopper biography, Edward Hopper, An Intimate Biography, suggests that there was a personal and physical relationship between Hopper and lighthouses.  She wrote:

“…He [Hopper] was nearly six feet five inches tall and perhaps felt a special affinity to this genre of architecture, which like him, stood apart from the rest of the world…”

 Other art critics look upon Hopper’s passion for lighthouses as an architectural manifestation of the theme of loneliness which can be found in much of Hopper’s art.

 I started this blog with a poem written about lighthouses and I conclude today with a longer one on that same subject, written by the famous American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The Lighthouse

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
and on its outer point, some miles away,
the lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
in the white tip and tremor of the face.

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light,
with strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!

No one alone: from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean’s verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o’er the restless surge.

Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night o’er taken mariner to save.

And the great ships sail outward and return
Bending and bowing o’er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn
They wave their silent welcome and farewells.

They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils
Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze.

The mariner remembers when a child,
on his first voyage, he saw it fade and sink
And when returning from adventures wild,
He saw it rise again o’er ocean’s brink.

Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!

It sees the ocean to its bosom clasp
The rocks and sea-sand with the kiss of peace:
It sees the wild winds lift it in their grasp,
And hold it up, and shake it like a fleece.

The startled waves leap over it; the storm
Smites it with all the scourges of the rain,
And steadily against its solid form
press the great shoulders of the hurricane.

The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.

A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
Still grasping in his hand the fire of love,
it does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
but hails the mariner with words of love.

Sail on!” it says: “sail on, ye stately ships!”
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse.
Be yours to bring man nearer unto man.

Automat by Edward Hopper

Automat by Edward Hopper (1927)

“All the lonely people, where do they all belong? “

I am sure the words from the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby are known by most people.  Loneliness can be a terrible burden to have to bear and its often associated with the impersonality of a large city, which although teeming with people, they seem to remain as strangers, whereas within small village communities there is a sense of camaraderie and friendliness which ensures that with a minimum of effort your loneliness can be banished. 

 My Daily Art Display featured painting for today is entitled Automat by the American artist Edward Hopper, which he completed in 1927.  His theme of loneliness and the loneliness of city life was a constant theme in a number of his paintings.  Look back to My Daily Art Display of January 23rd when I featured his famous work entitled Nighthawks. 

In today’s painting we see a woman, with her cloche hat pulled low down over her forehead, staring into her coffee cup as she sits by herself, in what Hopper terms as an Automat.  I have to admit I had never heard of this term before  but I believe they were what we would now call fast food outlets,  which served simple food or drinks,  and which were served by coin-operated and bill-operated vending machines but I guess the machines have been removed an there is waitress service nowadays.   There is a starkness about the setting, almost but not quite minimalist.  Like the scene in Nighthawks there are just windows but no doors on view, giving a slight sense of entrapment.  Her look of preoccupation would suggest she may be, for some reason unknown to us, mentally entrapped.

The woman we see before us is pensive, her eyes are downcast and to my mind she seems a little sad.  She is well dressed with her warm winter coat with its fur collar and cuffs.  She wears makeup so maybe she is on her way for an evening out or looking how dark it is outside, maybe she is on her way back home.  Of course we are not really sure whether she is on her own or whether the empty chair at her table is for somebody else.  Maybe she is awaiting her companion or is her despondency due to the companion’s non-arrival.

Another strange thing about the woman is that she has only one glove on.  Could it be that this café is not only a lonely place but also a cold one and the one glove is all she wanted to remove so that she could hold the cup and yet still retain some warmth?  The dark window takes up a lot of space in the painting and its darkness adds to the atmosphere of the painting.  It is pitch-black outside and, along with the way the woman is dressed, gives us the feeling that this scene takes place on a cold autumn or winter night.  There is no sign of life outside, no people, no lights from other buildings and no headlights from cars.  This lack of outside lights works well and allows just the penetration of the blackness by the reflection of the café lights to be more effective and in so doing adds to the feeling of isolation. Does Hopper want to liken the woman’s mood and her life to this view of the window – dark with little going on in it?  She is in the middle of a deserted town which adds to the sense of her isolation and solitude.  Note how Hopper has painted the woman’s legs.  The brightness of his colouring of them draws our eyes to them even though they are under the table.  It adds a little bit of overt sensuality to the painting and makes us wonder how such a woman could feel sad and lonely.  We are now concerned about her vulnerability.  Is her pensiveness also due to her feeling vulnerable as she sits alone in this café?

Time Magazine, August 1995

Hopper’s painting and ones of a similar theme are linked with the perception of urban alienation, which by definition is the state of being withdrawn or isolated from the urban world, as through indifference or disaffection.  It is interesting to note that in August 1995 Time magazine used this painting on its front cover with its lead article dedicated to stress, anxiety and depression.

Loneliness is often the central subject matter in Hopper’s art. The people he depicts look as though they are far from the comfort and reassurance of home. We see clues as to their isolation in the way they stand reading a letter beside a hotel bed or drinking in a bar. They stare out of the window of a moving train or read a book in a hotel lobby. Their faces often have the look of vulnerability and introspection. They look like they may have just been jilted or have just broken up with someone. They often seem to be mentally searching for something or someone and have been cast adrift in transient settings. His paintings are often set at night, as this adds to the mood and evocatively all we see through the window is darkness.

Yet despite this bleakness we witness in Hopper’s paintings, they are not themselves bleak to look at – perhaps because they allow us, the viewer, to witness some of the artist’s grief and disappointments, and from that we feel less personally persecuted and beset by them.  It is as if we suddenly realise we are not the only person to feel sad or depressed, for isn’t it true that sometimes a sad book consoles us more when we feel sad.  Maybe we just need to realise we are not alone in our sufferings. 

In some ways Hopper has challenged us to make up our own mind about the story behind the painting.  There is no action going on to give us any clues.  Maybe the story we come up with will depend on our own state of mind.  If we are happy, we may well believe that the woman is thinking about the coming to the café of her beloved.  If we ourselves are feeling lonely and slightly depressed then maybe we empathize with the woman and share her isolation and vulnerability.  So what is to be?  What is your take on the scene in the painting?  Maybe it is at times like this, when we look at the painting and we perceive the loneliness and unhappiness of the woman that we should take time to be grateful for what we have.  Maybe we should not always desire something else.  Maybe we should want what we have.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942)

My Daily Art Display’s offering today is in complete contrast to Raphael’s Madonna which I gave you two days ago.  Today I have skipped almost four hundred and fifty years to look at a work of modern art by the American artist Edward Hooper.  It is entitled Nighthawks and portrays three people sitting in a downtown diner.  For Hopper it was to be his most famous painting and one of the most recognisable in American art.

Edward Hopper was born in Nyack, on the Hudson River, in the state of New York in 1882.  He was an outstanding American Realist and American Scene painter as well as a  printmaker.  He came from a middle-class background and was an able student at school where he developed a love of art from an early age.  His parents encouraged this love and helped him develop his talent for drawing.  At the age of seventeen he attended the New York Institute of Art and Design and remained there for six years.  In 1905 he went to work at an advertising agency where he was employed to design covers for trade magazines but he did not like this type of illustration work but like all of us, needed the money.   He managed to visit Europe on three occasions during which time he discovered and fell in love with works of Rembrandt and some of his contemporaries.  Whilst in Paris he spent a lot of his time painting café and street scenes, a hobby he carried on with when he returned to New York.  He became very interested in the Realist art genre.

It was in 1942, at the age of sixty that Hopper painted today’s work of art, Nighthawks.  The expression “nighthawk” is a word used to describe somebody who stays up late, often also termed a “night owl”.  The scene of his painting was inspired by one in Greenwich Village, Manhattan where Hopper lived for fifty four years.  There is a mood of despondency about this painting and this may be in part due to the fact that Hopper started this painting soon after Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese and the whole of America, after the initial shock, was in a mood of hopelessness and misery after such a loss of American lives.

The diner is probably not an up-market establishment due to the fact that the advertisement above the window is for “Phillies” which is a brand of popular but cheap cigars, which were usually on sale at gas stations and convenience stores.  The three “nighthawks” are bathed in a swathe of fluorescent light which also lights up the corner of the deserted street.  There is an Art Deco feel to the diner.  As is the case in this work, Hopper often painted pictures which illustrated the loneliness of life with motel rooms and gas stations being the setting for some of his works.  Here we see a couple at the bar with their hands almost, but not quite, touching.   They remind me of Bogart and Bacall.  The third diner sits alone around the corner of the bar.  There is a definite sense of isolation and loneliness about the people in the picture.  Instead of sitting comfortably at home with their families they are in an impersonal friendless late-night diner.  It is interesting to note that the picture does not show any obvious entrance to the diner and thus it gives a feel of entrapment as if the people are prisoners of their loneliness.  Hopper himself disagreed with the idea that he had made the diner a lonely-looking venue stating:

“…I didn’t see it as particularly lonely…….Unconsciously, probably; I was painting the loneliness of a big city…”

Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Gottfried Helnwein (1984)

Hopper’s iconic painting was reproduced many times.  One of the most famous is probably Gottfried Helnwein’s painting entitled Boulevard of Broken Dreams in which the bar tender is Elvis, the couple Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Munroe and the solitary figure, with his back to us, James Dean.  This was sold extensively as a poster.  I suppose that because we know the characters in this picture and we know of their lives, maybe the feeling of loneliness of these “nighthawks” is not so obvious at first glance but maybe their tragic fates were meant to add to the mood of their diner.

I will leave you with a poem, written by Wolf Wondratscheck, based on Hopper’s painting Nighthawks in which he reasons as to why the customers came to the diner and what will happen next

 It is night
and the city is deserted.
The lucky ones are at home,
or more likely
there are none left.

 In Hopper’s painting, four people remain
the usual cast, so-to-speak:
the man behind the counter, two men and a woman.
Art lovers, you can stone me
but I know this situation pretty well.

 Two men and one woman
as if this were mere chance.
You admire the painting’s composition
but what grabs me is the erotic pleasure
of complete emptiness.

 They don’t say a word, and why should they?
Both of them smoking, but there is no smoke.
I bet she wrote him a letter.
Whatever it said, he’s no longer the man
who’d read her letters twice.

 The radio is broken.
The air conditioner hums.
I hear a police siren wail.
Two blocks away in a doorway, a junkie groans
and sticks a needle in his vein.
That’s how the part you don’t see looks.

 The other man is by himself
remembering a woman;
she wore a red dress, too.
That was ages ago.
He likes knowing women like this still exist
but he’s no longer interested.

 What might have been
between them, back then?
I bet he wanted her.
I bet she said no.

 No wonder, art lovers,
that this man is turning his back on you.