Though it attracts fewer tourists and is not on the trolley line, one attraction in San Antonio is the Marion Koogler McNay Museum of Art. Here hangs Hopper's Corn Hill. In 1620, pilgrims ransacked the Native Americans' stash of corn for enough to plant their crop the next season. The place where they did that became known as Corn Hill and was near Hopper's summer studio on Cape Cod. Corn Hill was painted in 1930 at the beginning of the Depression. Perhaps Hopper was noting that Americans were again (like the pilgrims) forced to steal to eat. Or maybe he turned to easily accessible landscapes because there was no money to go to the theaters or travel.
In the painting, several houses atop the hill are broadsided in salmony sunshine. Two small edifices off to the right mirror the hilltop houses in looking like the kind a kindergartner draws: just a box with a peaked roof. These structures are surrounded almost entirely by rounded and undulating forms in the dunes and foliage. Jo called the painting "Bare spot all sandy, palish sky with 1 long thick cloud. Foreground pale green tall grass salt meadow." Corn Hill originally went to the Hoppers' friend Bee Blanchard, and they visited to find that it had been replaced by a painting of Bee's favorite horse, "Sir Archie."
It also was not on display in the McNay when I visited, but they allowed me to see it in a gallery that was closed for installation. I could stand back and see it from about 25 feet away. At that distance, the perspective and lighting come together to feel natural, especially the sky. Here's a man who understands clouds. And, like with cloud-watching, people seem to see whatever they want in Hopper's paintings.
The woman assigned to show me the painting and files, Heather, was short with short hair parted on the side. Atop her elfin nose, her glasses frames were speckled dark blue and brown, and the sides had jagged edges like flames coming out of her brown eyes. Black pants and a white shirt divided her into equal halves. Like many I met, she had come home. "I had been at a gallery in New York. I came back to San Antonio because I'm from here. I never thought I would return, but I did." Heather's sick son convalesced on a makeshift bed in the next room. While I was pursuing a personal dream to learn about the American people, they were taking care of the business of living.
"If I owned a painting like that [Corn Hill]," she fawned, "I'd probably never want to sell it. It is a very popular piece. When we don't have it up, people always ask. The hills of Cape Cod don't like anything like the landscape around here. So it must touch something that people can identify with. I don't know whether it's a sort of sense of isolation. I don't think that our painting has quite the sense of loneliness as other Hopper paintings, like Western Motel. You don't know what she's doing in that motel, but you know it's not happy. I don't know if this fits in with your thesis, but we get so many requests from Germans for this. I don't know if it fits in with that German angst or what."
Next Heather regaled me with stories of the Hopper buyers: Sylvan Lang and his wife Mary. "They were really passionate about what they did. The Langs had a Calder mobile. They wrote to Calder to try to find out what date it was made. He sent back a little scrawled note that said, 'Yes, I made it, but I don't know when.' That Calder mobile, they had it actually out on their pool. At a party one time someone was showing it to people and dropped it in the pool. The director of the McNay was there and took off his shoes and jumped into the pool and saved the Calder. That kind of passion is what inspired Sylvan to donate his collection to the museum."
As we parted ways, Heather suggested I check out another collection that was a museum highlight: the Tobin Theater collection.1 Donated by Robert L.B. Tobin ("Fritzy"), it is one of the most comprehensive collections in America related to theater history and design. "I often wonder," Heather mused, "people who are in love with theater, if it isn't a way for them to perform. He [Fritzy Tobin] did perform maybe three or four times. But he was a backstage person. I kind of wonder if it wasn't masking a desire to be an actor."
I wondered the same thing about Hopper. Maybe art is a kind of private performance for those too introverted to actually go in front of audiences.
1Heather had related the life of museum founder Mary McNay, which was worthy of a stage play, replete with failed artistic ambitions, forced marriages, and weepy train station goodbyes to a GI husband who went off and got killed in war.