228 San Francisco, CA: Bridle Path

San Francisco, California: Bridle Path

My trip to San Francisco started like the three dozen cold calls I had already made. But San Francisco's de Young Museum, where Hopper's Portrait of Orleans normally hangs, informed me that the painting had been returned to its owner while the museum's new home was being built. Graciously, the owner offered to show me the painting at her house. I had excluded Hoppers in private collections because my subject was the American people and what they thought while looking at Hoppers. But Americans also buy Hoppers and put them in their homes.

When I called the week before my visit to confirm our appointment, the owner had meantime made plans to be out of town. I was met at the door by her housekeeper, a short, squat woman with white bouffant hair. A colorful ascot adorned her neck above an understated white sweater and gray suit coat. She called the painting's owner "a sweet, sweet woman" and had been her housekeeper for nearly twenty years.

She showed me into a beige living room, which had a grand piano, big brass telescope, and primitive stone heads lining the rear window overlooking the bay and Alcatraz, the island prison from which no successful escape was ever made.

Portrait of Orleans hung above the fireplace mantle. The painting shows downtown Orleans, near Hopper's summer home on Cape Cod. An electric pole and traffic lamppost rise from a broad intersection at center. Sidewalk storefronts trail off into the distance, where trees and a barn demarcate the town's end. The dominant colors are white, green, and salmon, which unite in the upper right corner's Esso gas station sign. Early in the painting process, Jo noted, "[T]he corner of Route 6 & the Main St. of Orleans is down on canvas.... It's not so exciting--yet!" After several weeks of driving around Cape Cod hoping to find the right kind of sky he wanted to top this scene, Hopper "faked one of his own."

To my questions, the housekeeper demurred before finally conceding, "I like it because you can tell what it is." She pointed to an abstract painting on a nearby wall. "That I no like so much."

Unlike Portrait of Orleans, the other painting in town hung in its usual home: San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Bridle Path depicts people riding horses in New York's Central Park. In the foreground, a tall man in a brown tweed coat rides a white horse. Beside the man, a redhead in a black riding outfit sits astride a tan horse high in her spurs, seeming to float. Slightly behind, a blond woman in a gray coat rides a chestnut horse. The man's horse rears as it approaches a tunnel, perhaps scared by the darkness.

The man looks like Hopper, and his wife Jo had red hair like the rider next to him. As they both start to enter the tunnel, he stops his horse, putting him nearer to the blond. This implied love triangle is reinforced when one realizes that the title could be a pun on "Bridal Path." A preparatory sketch was titled: Men, Women & Horses. All "bridle" when asked to go where they don't want. Bridle Path was painted in 1939, and it could also be viewed as a comment on the war in Europe. Everybody is rushing headlong into a dark tunnel, and the man wants to stop the charge.

Jo noted about this painting that Hopper got "a little book on horse anatomy... Unmistakably Central Park this time of year on a grey day. Almost the smell. The horses too reek horse flesh. What thanks is he to get for doing the job so masterly?"

This painting I could interview people in front of. A couple of older women approached. The taller one wore a multicolored scarf above a blue blazer draped by a thick gold necklace. Her shorter friend donned a purple shirt and carried a purse with a black-and-white square Gucci Gs. I asked if they were from San Francisco.

"No," the tall one barked. "We're from Marin." She stopped and rolled her eyes. "Sorry. We're from the 'bay area.' Can't use that word 'Marin' any more. It has to be bay area. I'm Dolly, and this is Candy." Her face soured when I asked if they felt isolated. "Of course we don't. Why should we? Just because we're often described that way by people who have never been here? We all feel part of the bay area."

Candy asked tentatively, "What do you mean?"

"Like Hopper's characters," I explained.

"We don't lead the kind of lives he depicts," Candy reflected. "I think he sought out isolation. You know, all those lonely hotel rooms. What he depicted was a product of the times, too. Those types of places that people frequented don't even exist any more."

"The east coast people think we must be so isolated here," Dolly blurted. "Just because you're alone doesn't mean you don't want to be alone."

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