[Swope Museum front]
Sheldon Swope, a jeweler and real estate developer who fought in the Civil War, left his fortune to establish an art museum in his adopted hometown of Terre Haute. The Swope Museum of Art opened in 1942 and claims to be the second-oldest United States institution devoted solely to American art. The museum's first director, John Rogers Cox, was a painter himself, born in Terre Haute and educated in Philadelphia. He wisely focused the museum's modest purchasing power on contemporary American paintings and sculptures, where bargains were easier to find. The very first painting the new museum bought was Edward Hopper's Route 6, Eastham. One frugal man bought the painting of another. (The critic Frank Getlein observed Hopper at an art event in New York City slunk in a chair eating handfuls of hors d'oeuvres. When he spotted Getlein staring, Hopper muttered, "This would be my supper.")
A surprisingly fine example of Hopper's work, Route 6, Eastham was newly cleaned when I saw it. (The Swope's building also had just undergone extensive renovations. Echoing the museum employee's warning, one of the out-of-town construction crew called the Swope "one of the best-kept secrets around.") Slightly larger than two feet by three feet, the painting shows a white clapboard farmhouse on a flat stretch of highway. Such New England farmsteads are nicknamed for their buildings: "big house-little house-back house-barn." The apparently pastoral subject is given a dark undertone because the farm is devoid of people or tools and the scene is dominated by the paved highway. A triangle of pale yellow wildflowers at bottom implies that the viewer stands across the highway. The conflict is whether to appreciate the simple beauty of the outdated farmstead or head down the long bleak modern road.
I asked the fiftyish woman sitting at the museum's front desk if she was from Terre Haute. She folded her arms across her turquoise T-shirt, which was draped with a lightweight lilac sweater. "I'm from here, but left." The Crossroads of America seemed to be the crossroads of its residents' lives: many people who left here returned. "Married military." She spoke in clipped phrases after bouts of silence during which she withdrew deep into herself. "Lived in California, Hawaii, and the Far East. I came back because my parents were in failing health. Fully intended to move back to California, but it didn't happen that way. So I'm here. And lo and behold liking it," she said, raising an eyebrow. Apparently Terre Haute can surprise even the natives.
"Do you know much about art in general or this Hopper painting?"
She narrowed her eyes. "I actually majored in Art."
"Is this anything like how you paint?"
"No. I got hooked on flowers. Flowers and artichokes. I like the feeling of isolation in Hopper's spaces, especially when he puts people in them. A lot of visitors think it's a regional piece, from the local area."
"Do you think people in your community are as isolated as Hopper's characters?" I asked.
"Absolutely not. I thought I would feel that way when I came back, but I don't. I wouldn't feel isolated except maybe in Siberia. We have a lot of culture that comes in to Terre Haute; we have a lot of culture that exists in Terre Haute. Earlier in life, I had to have the excitement of big towns; now, I prefer small towns. My kids don't live around here. I like the proximity to the airport. I can be anywhere I want to be in a short time. I like that you can drive so many neat areas around here. As an example, we went up to see Ernie Pyle's home and museum. You look at that house and you see a Hopper subject."
I left her to her duties and went to see the rest of the collection. Though the museum was small, and whole time periods and art movements that would be given a wing or a room in other museums were here given only a wall, the collection held several pleasant surprises. The Swope's Grant Wood painting Spring in Town was chosen to represent Wood in the Whitney Museum's 1999 survey of twentieth-century American art. Robert Motherwell's excellent Caprice #4 is named for the caprice that produced a beautiful spray of pitch black on a field of pure white.
I was not familiar with Gordon Samstag, but his painting titled Young Man Desires Position caught my eye. It shows a young man in a dark suit slumped into a chair with his portfolio at his feet. Samstag said it was an art school classmate who dropped by after a day of frustrating calls on artist wanted ads. "The title," Samstag said, "was intended to point out the twist to which the art student is subjected after leaving art school." Hopper was subjected to the same "twist," working illustration jobs after art school and not becoming appreciated as a painter until he was forty.
Back in front of Route 6, Eastham, the demographically pure family had materialized: man, woman, son, and daughter. The father was wiry and tanned with a full beard on his creased face beneath a seed company cap. The small wife had pasted a smile beneath her quickly blinking eyes. The parents introduced themselves as John and Linda and the children as Joy and True. I told them about my project and asked if they were from Terre Haute.
"We're much more rural than Terre Haute," the dad drawled.
"So that looks like your house?" I joked.
"Well, it kind of looks like where I grew up," he conceded.
"What do you think of this piece?"
He squinted at it. "You can tell he likes his subject; it's all clean lines and bright colors."
I was surprised at how succinctly he articulated the allure of Hopper's paintings. A lot of art critics had wasted a lot more words trying to explain it.
"I see here," he continued, "a mind that sees in rural lifestyle advantages but also an intellectual loneliness. It's a combination of an attraction and a repulsion. There's obviously something about Hopper's art or person that you are intrigued by," he mused, turning to me.
Nodding emphatically, his wife assured me, "I can see you're going to have quite a spiritual brotherhood with the paintings of Edgar Hopper."
I hadn't realized before visiting Terre Haute how susceptible Hopper's simple name was to variations like hers and Alexandra's from the night before.
"It's nice to have friends," John summed up, shepherding his family out the front door. "Even when they're dead."
John's wording startled me. I hadn't thought of my journey as chasing Hopper's ghost, but maybe he was right. I wouldn't have been surprised to find Hopper's spirit wandering Terre Haute; I found so many other surprises here. Like in Hopper's paintings, it is astounding how much can be revealed by even a seemingly simple scene. A lot more is going on than you would guess at first glance at this "nowhere place."