Not only might the characters in her works know those in Hopper's, her actual artworks rub shoulders with Hopper's in the Whitney's vast collection. In directing me to local arts places to visit, she said off-handedly, "Around 19th and Baltimore, there's an amazing amount of galleries. [At one you can see] my work that the Whitney bought."
Byron, who Peregrine had sent me to, had an old man's voice, though he looked relatively young. He wore a loose cottony shirt with a wildly colored pattern, and long white hair hung down from his head. He was constantly on the phone but peered over round glasses on the end of his nose to honor my request to view Peregrine's work. True to what she said, her works did look like 1940s cartoons: brightly colored and small in scale. They looked less risqué than I expected.
The rest of that gallery scene was thriving, as promised. One gallery included a billboard visible from the highway saying, "Protect me from what I want." One gallery owner protested the insipid public art display of cow sculptures on every downtown corner by creating Persons for Interesting Treatment of Art (a take-off of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Another gallery bluntly stated, "This is a cow-free zone."
It hung in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, which was founded in 1933 by the publisher of the Kansas City Star and bolstered by contributions from a shy, retired schoolteacher. The museum had the world's largest concentration of paintings by Missouri artists George Caleb Bingham and Thomas Hart Benton, including Benton's masterpiece, Persephone. The grounds also boasted the largest collection of Henry Moore sculptures outside of Moore's homeland England, and the museum's enormous front lawn is strewn with Claes Oldenburg's oversized shuttlecocks. But it is known above all for its magnificent collection of Asian art, particularly the arts of China.
In the painting I was there to see, a line of Union soldiers rides away with hung heads trailing a cannon behind them past the simple white clapboard house that had served as the Union Army's headquarters. Rather than stretch the soldiers horizontally across the painting, Hopper bunches them in the center, and they recede into the canvas like disappearing ghosts.
The painting process was a bit of a battle itself. Hopper's wife Jo (the enemy in his own civil war) reported that for several weeks, "E. worked from Early A.M. til dark-standing up. He gets so tired." She described the painting as a "long stream of tired men & beasts." Ed and Jo visited Gettysburg in 1929, and she had given him a book of Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs that he greatly enjoyed. In 1934, he painted Dawn Before Gettysburg (in a private collection). Light Battery at Gettysburg was Hopper's second and last painting of an historical event.
The painting was begun when the rumblings of World War II were starting in Europe, American politicians invoked the Civil War to whip up nationalistic war support. (More monuments decorate the field of Gettysburg than any other battlefield in the world, and it remains the greatest battle ever fought on American soil.) Hopper had some experience with propaganda art. In 1918, his "Smash the Hun" won a war poster contest.
Light Battery at Gettysburg hung on a slanted wall in an octagonal gallery and was easy to overlook. It felt almost like the museum was embarrassed by the Hopper, and I learned later that it took four ballots for the Board to approve its purchase. It is not the urban or idyllic landscape you expect from Hopper and may be viewed as a lesser work. But Painter William Bailey spoke at length about the impression this painting made on him when he was an art student in Kansas City.
It seemed terribly clumsy and boring, and yet it made an uncommonly strong impression on me. I still don't think that that is a great Hopper, but it has many of the virtues of Hopper. There was nothing about the brushwork, there was nothing about the composition, that seemed to me arresting. It was very clear, though, it was very simple, it was very homely, and it stuck with me.
[Nelson-Atkins Museum]After ascertaining that the arts future of Kansas City, Missouri was as bright as promised, I headed out to see the past: Hopper's Light Battery at Gettysburg.