164 Pittsburgh, PA: Champ

[Carnegie Museum of Art]

Dinah also put me in touch with Champ, a friend of hers who worked at the Carnegie Museum (which the locals all pronounced as if the word had two gs or the building were dripping yolks: Carn-EGG-y). Champ was an amiable guy with a boyish face. A widow's peak made deep inroads into his hair above a bulbous forehead. He wore oval black glasses, a wooden choker collar, and an orange Polo shirt. As he led me to the painting, I learned that he had grown up in Hopper’s native town of Nyack, New York.

"Nyack's a great place to grow up," he crowed. "You're close enough to take advantage of all that New York City has to offer, but you're not living there. And there's enough of a small-town element to counterbalance the suburban element so it wasn't like growing up in Levittown."

"Pretty Penny," I asked, "didn't have the brick wall when you were growing up, did it?"

"Well," Champ sniffed, "it had another brick wall when Helen Hayes lived there, though she wasn't quite as reclusive as Rosie O'Donnell. Neighbors of ours across the street worked for Helen Hayes for a while, so I actually got to go inside the house, and I swam in the pool. And there didn't seem to be anything wrong with the house that Rosie O'Donnell needed to say, 'strip it to the walls; add another three feet to the brick wall; close the big iron-gate' (which was never closed when I was a kid); and then move out.

"I worked at the Nyack library when I was in college, and somebody that I worked with there was living in the apartment upstairs of Hopper's house. She and her husband were sort of caretakers of the place. The general population [of Nyack] kind of knows of its existence but probably has never been there.

"I recognize a number of buildings as local buildings, although he's taken them and put them into a different context. There's one where it's a building in Nyack, the storefront. In his picture, it recognizably has become his building. But that four-square with the central column and central path is easily identifiable in any town.

"I tend," he frowned, "to see Hopper as more of an urban artist. Or more concerned with urban themes. What speaks to me is a kind of alienation and melancholy. And Nyack is not that kind of place, and I'm sure even less so when he was living there. It's a neighborly place, a very community-oriented place. Maybe having grown up there [in Nyack], it was his response to New York that made it onto the canvas. He may have found a kindred spirit in the New York experience. Because he was not the most forthcoming person.

Champ wanted to talk about the Carnegie’s other Hopper. Sailing was painted in 1916, before my cutoff point, but it was important to Hopper’s life. It was the single oil painting he sold as a young artist, bought from the famous so-called "Armory Show" in New York City that introduced Americans to Modernist painters. Its fame resurfaced in 1981 when x-rays revealed an early self-portrait underneath. Once you know it's there, the self-portrait is obvious. Hopper used dark blue to cover up the more visible parts of the portrait. The coloring of the sky mimics his face sideways, which looks downward in the current canvas's orientation. A diagonal slash in the painting originally demarcated the collar of Hopper's jacket, while other ridges in the paint's surface clearly show the shape of the head and ear.

"Hopper," Champ pointed out, "won a Carnegie Prize. He also, earlier in his career, sent the Carnegie a painting, La Berge, when he was doing French subjects. They rejected it, and that was sort of a defining moment. The Carnegie sent it back, and he destroyed it. He went back and started to paint American subjects."

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