by Sam Juliano
If anyone was destined to paint the illustrations for a picture book biography of the iconic 20th Century realist Edward Hopper, there could be no better match than Wendell Minor. Both Hopper and Minor throughout their careers have reveled in acute Americana: Hopper drew on on sea and rural landscapes and traditional locations, while Minor has devoted his career toward capturing the great outdoors, endangered species and venerated American figures. Surely if Hopper, who passed away on May 15, 1967 at the age of 85, were alive today, he’d surely commission Minor to document his life through his art. Similarly, Minor and his collaborator on the magnificent Edward Hopper Paints His World, Robert Burleigh, are also a match made in picture book heaven. They have previously taken on everybody’s favorite American, Abe Lincoln, the celebrated transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, and famed ornithologist John James Audubon. Minor of course, has also worked famously with renowned author David McCollough (John Adams) the astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the late Jean Craighead George, one of the most adored of children’s authors.
The Burleigh-Minor collaboration in Edward Hopper is their finest to date. Perhaps the deft fusion of Burleigh’s engrossing biographical text with Minor’s work in progress approach have made this such a striking and beautifully crafted book, but I can’t help but conclude that Minor is especially inspired by a fellow artist who has inspired him through his life. Indeed, Minor has stated publicly that of the three ravishing picture books he has released in 2014 (Galapagos George before, and Sequoia after Edward Hopper) that this one is “the dearest to his heart,” and in a passionate afterward to the book asserts:
Ever since I was a student, Edward Hopper has influenced my approach to the use of light, color, and composition. In this book I tried to create the feeling of Hopper’s art while maintaining my own style.
Minor’s gouache and watercolor paintings are not remotely replicas of Hopper’s art, but an embodiment of that art through interpretive means with the result tapestries that are works of art based on works of art. There is a fine line of demarcation, but Minor has interspersed his own glorious homage of some of the most identifiable masterpieces with the artist’s maturation through dazzling sepia-toned pencil sketches and portraits of Hopper in the various urban and rural settings that subsequently were seen in his work. If anything Minor’s art has accentuated the sense of loneliness inherent in Hopper’s life and work, consequently there a measure of poignancy that can be best gauged by the interpreter.
After a breathtaking title page spread that features a New England lighthouse and adjoined rustic home, and Hopper painting the scene on his easel, the painter’s life story begins in Nyack, New York, where as a young child living in a scenic hamlet along the Hudson, he began to draw pictures of sailboats and seagulls, even signing his own drawings in artist mode. He moved to New York City after completing high school to study illustration and painting at a time when creative excitement filled the air as the new century was dawning. Eventually he moved to Paris, where he was inspired by museum visits and “the lights and shadows” he observed, and then took up employment in New York City, where he created periodical illustrations, but invariably was dissatisfied, much preferring to paint what moved him. He rented a flat on the top floor of an apartment building in New York City to save money and to achieve the flexibility he needed to work, but shortly thereafter moved his easel to the location of old houses, which truth be said encapsulated his own quietude. At 42 years old he married a fellow artist, Jo Nivison, a former fellow student at an art school they attended together. She provided him with support, encouragement and as his companion for outdoor painting missions. His drives along the Atlantic provided him with the inspiration to create some of the most venerated lighthouse paintings on record, especially one of his greatest works, “Lighthouse Hill.” He later settles on Cape Cod, which gave him an ultimate chance for scenic immersion. It was in that area where he came upon a lonely gas station that served at the springboard for one of his most famous paintings ever -“Gas.” As Burleigh notes: “It (the isolated gas station) captures the quiet emptiness that he discovered on his explorations.” Minor brings the perspective of a car and Hopper looking on to emphasize the loneliness though perception.
Moving back to New York, Hopper most desired to paint things that only he saw, not what the general population took in. He walked around with his sketchbook, and took his time on completing his paintings. One of those, “Early Sunday Morning” is a close-up on a two-floor building that houses a newspaper store and a barber shop, that is known for the way it visually perceives emptiness. Minor’s own visual transcription again features Hopper himself walking past this deserted location, to allow his to feel it before painting it.
The artist’s most famous painting of all is the one that also graces one of the most spectacular covers of 2014 – “Nighthawks.” Minor again has Hopper look on at the sight of city location enshrouded in forlornness, one that in a mystifying sense lays waste to the notion that Big Apple is a place that never sleeps. The contrast between the brightly lit diner and the dark, muted tones of the window behind the woman at the counter give the picture an almost surreal look, but the underpinning here is one of aching solitude. In all four of the big paintings Burleigh has woven into his engaging narrative, Minor has livened up the proceedings with a bold interpretation, which remarkably have enhanced the quiet power and aesthetic beauty of landmark works in American art.
My own favorite Hopper painting? Real tough, but “Lighthouse Hill” by a single brush thistle. My favorite Minor illustration, aside from his four blood brother immersions with Hopper are his single panel view of NYC’s historic Flatiron Building and the exquisite view of Paris seen in a double page spread.
Burleigh concludes his exacting portrait of Hopper with the persuasive contention that the artist was both a hero and an explorer- the former for daring to pursue his life’s aspirations against all the obstacles placed before him, and the latter discovering his own unique mode of expression, one that encompasses solitary persons, a sense of mystery, shadowy landscapes, deserted streets and lonely roads. Hopper was a true original. There is no doubt he is looking down at Burleigh and Minor with satisfaction, knowing that his life story and art have been given an inspired documentation. Edward Hopper Paints His World is one of the premiere picture book achievements of the year, and well deserves a close look by the Caldecott committee.
Note: This is the thirteenth entry in the 2014 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include between 20 and 25 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on February 2nd, hence the reviews will continue to the end of January.