88 Northampton, MA: Pretty Penny

Northampton, Massachusetts: Pretty Penny

Northampton looked like a thriving New England hill town, with a broad road gently sloping up a business district of majestic old storefronts. In a Hopperesque transformation of American architecture, the three-story Greek temple style bank at the corner of Pleasant and Main had been made into a jewelry shop. The Holyoke Mountains loomed all around, and side streets downtown breathtakingly rose or fell away.

Northampton prides itself on being surrounded by five schools: Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, University of Massachusetts, and Smith College, who collectively comprise the "Five-College" region. Many students from all five choose to live in Northampton because it is the largest and most central city in the region.

One of these colleges, Smith College, houses the Hopper painting in town: Pretty Penny. It shows the house in Nyack owned by actress Helen Hayes and her husband Charles Macarthur, who wrote the hit play The Front Page. Hopper's dealer Frank K.M. Rehn, knowing Hopper's Nyack upbringing and love of theater, proposed that he do it. Hopper chafed under his first commission since giving up commercial art. The painting in fact looks a little like an ad in an architectural magazine, though Hopper has applied his usual artistry.

The house is viewed from under a pine tree, whose haphazard dark green shadows on the front lawn help frame the house. The stories rise in a series of steps that make the squat house seem taller. By making the square forms on the right side jut forward, while the bay windows on the left side sink back, Hopper makes the house seem monolithic.

It's such a pretty painting that you'd be surprised the drama that went on to get it made. Gail Levin details Jo's extensive entries and other accounts. Hopper said, "I can't do this house. I don't want to paint this house. It does nothing for me…. "

Hayes recalled that Hopper turned up unannounced. "I went to the window and sure enough, there was Hopper, grumpy as ever, sketching our house." Helen said MacArthur "…phoned Frank Rehn and said, 'How did you do that? What changed his mind?' And [Rehn] said, 'Well, Jo and I have been working on him and after having an afternoon of Jo...'" Hayes said Hopper was "like a big hellcat of anger and resentment.... I had never met a more misanthropic, grumpy, grouchy individual in my life, and as a performer I just shriveled under the heat of this disapproval. " By contrast, Jo wrote of Helen Hayes, "It was so nice to meet her, very simple, real genuine, like her work. She's very nice--& friendly & interested. After lunch Mr. McA. kept us at table talking about movies."

After all the trouble Hopper went to for this picture, Jo, the Rehns, and Helen Hayes suggested putting in Hayes's daughter and French poodle, leading to Edward "cussing" the lot of them. After the painting was delivered, though, MacArthur phoned to say how pleased with it they were. Rehn asked twenty-five hundred dollars, more than half of Hopper's sales for the entire year.1

1This story is told in more detail in Gail Levin's Hopper biography, where you can also find more of her Helen Hayes interview.

1 comment:

The Hopper Guy said...

I got a note from a reader:
"The mountains in Northampton
aren't part of the Berkshires. They are known locally as "The Holyoke Range", and include the only mountain range in the US that goes east to west (instead of north to south)."
Sorry for the error.