189 Wichita, KS: Masters

[Wichita Art Museum]

Afterwards, I went to see the results of another art collecting master: Mrs. Rafael Navas, the assistant for Mrs. Roland P. Murdock, who acquired three Hopper paintings for Wichita--more than in any other town west of Washington, D.C.: Sunlight on Brownstones, Five A.M., and Conference at Night. The Wichita Art Museum (WAM) acquired each almost when still wet.

Sunlight on Brownstones shows a young couple on the stoop of their New York City brownstone apartment building staring at the sunset or dawning day. Her black hair curls around the shoulders of her flat blue dress as she leans back on both of her palms, exposing white stockings with black slippers. The man stands upright in the doorway, wearing a tie and long-sleeved white shirt below a sleeveless green sweater, staring past the cigarette he holds before his face. Their white-toned skin implies both the warmth of sunlight and the chill of death. The brownstones seem to pitch backward, as if theater-lover Hopper set them on a raked (slanted) stage.

Hopper said of the painting, "Brownstones are clotted in some sections of New York. Lots of them in the West Eighties, and the Park is right there. I went up there making sketches. The light is largely improvised. Is it as pink as I made it? I don't know." It was painted in 1956, and, as Gail Levin points out, "Even before Sunlight on Brownstones could be framed, it was purchased by the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas." The Hoppers celebrated by going to see Mister Roberts and Rebel Without a Cause.

In one WAM Bulletin, J. Daniel Selig pointed out that, "as [a helpful diagram he provided] indicates, there's no consistency in the perspective [in Sunlight on Brownstones]." He goes on to say, "While the Renaissance discovered that the sky was lighter near the horizon and deeper in color toward the zenith, here we have the curious effect of the sky being lighter at the right and deeper at the left."

Five A.M. shows a squat lighthouse on a rock outcropping in a bay. In the background, a factory stands at the base of a ridge of hills. Light blue fog enshrouds the scene.

In 1941, Hopper and Jo themselves passed through Kansas and visited Five A.M. Hopper said it, "…was suggested by some things that I had seen while traveling on the Boston-New York boats on Long Island Sound. The original impression grew into an attempted synthesis of an entrance to a harbor on the New England coast. The lighthouse is a not very actual rendition of one near Staten Island in New York harbor."

A Massachusetts resident wrote to the museum in 1994 with his own theory. "…this is a view of the Plymouth Cordage Works as seen from Saquish Head off of Duxbury Plymouth Mass. The 'light', slightly stylized, is called Bug Light. I do not know the origin of that name. This is still a desolate place, deserted in winter…. Mr. Hopper must have visited Saquish or Clark's Island nearby. And he must have liked it as much as I do. Best place in the whole country, no exaggeration. FYI."

WAM's third and final Hopper painting, Conference at Night, shows a conference going on at night between two men and a woman in an office lit only by streetlight and filled only by two long tables. It is an odd room to say the least. The characters are in a part of the room that has an eave near the window. Where the eave gives way, the room vaults upward into darkness. One pillar is round; its partner is square. The door floats; it's not set in a wall and doesn't reach a ceiling.

The three dark figures set against a light background have faces like Dick Tracy cartoons. A mysterious man in a dark coat with his back to you has his hands in his pockets. The woman (of whom Jo said, "Debra is hard, a queen in her right") is older, and her hands gather at the waist of her black dress. She has bright red lips and a hawklike nose beneath close-cut hair. The man on the right (Jo called him, "Sammy") wears a short tie and a vest, with his shirtsleeves rolled up. He leans back on one fist and gesticulates in the air with the other.

Hopper started the painting New Years Day 1949. Jo "posed for hands of the tall straight saleswoman or head of filing dept." Jo called the characters, "garment workers who were cooking up something." Sadly, the purchaser's wife agreed and succumbed to the era's witch-hunting mentality, deciding "Conference looked too much like a Communist gathering."

In a letter to Mrs. Navas, Hopper wrote, "I appreciate that the general public likes to have its art explained in words. It is going to be difficult for me to make words do much for Conference at Night. The idea of a loft of a business building with the artificial light of the street coming into the room at night had been in my mind for some years before I attempted it and had been suggested by things I had seen on Broadway in walking there at night."

I had asked Michael as a WAM Board member how they viewed the Hoppers. "Oh, as treasures. Not only the Hoppers but the collection. I've looked at it for probably thirty years. And I have really begun to understand the depth of what we have, the value of it, and the quality of it. It would be absolutely impossible for us to buy the Hoppers today that we have. Mrs. Navas was a master at collecting. I'm not aware that anybody's said, 'Boy that's a bad pick'. I'm no expert on Edward Hopper, other than I know I like his work a lot. I would say most Kansans would prefer very representational art as opposed to something very abstract (not that we are unsophisticated). It's a piece of work that anyone can look at and enjoy."

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