259 Norfolk, VA: The Most Average Place

I found out what she meant as I tried to navigate my way to the Chrysler Museum. The narrow streets were unevenly paved in slim red bricks, and I kept dead-ending into water.

An article titled "Edward Hopper, American Realist," asked rhetorically, "Did Hopper ever paint a child?" The answer would be "sort of." The Hopper here, New York Pavements, is notable for showing a nanny pushing a baby stroller, the only hint Hopper had of a baby.1,2 When Hopper posed for his friend Raphael Soyer, Soyer's wife brought in their one-year-old grandson. She said, "Say hello to Mr. Hopper," and Hopper jokingly replied, "He doesn't have to say it if he doesn't want to." Soyer wrote in his journal that there was "warmth and humor" in Hopper's gaze at the baby.

The perspective in New York Pavements is from above, as if the nanny were viewed from Hopper's top-floor New York studio. The sidewalk seems to tilt as if she's struggling uphill. Her red face rhymes with the pink of her hand and the blanket in the baby buggy. Her rich, royal blue outfit and headdress flap in the wind. She passes in front of a strongly rusticated gray slate apartment building with a four-pillared porch out front. At the base of the building, two street-level half windows of a garden apartment seem to spy on the scene.

Up walked a man whose balding head slung forward as if apologizing for his six-foot-three frame. The hair on the top of his head was shaved close, as was his beard, darkly outlining his skull. He wore oval glasses, a green collar-less shirt, jean shorts, a webbed leather belt, and sandals.

"I came here today just to see this painting," he answered, keeping his arms crossed over his chest. "If you asked me about anyone else, I wouldn't know a thing about it. I actually love his stuff. I've never seen this [Hopper painting] in a book or referred to. It's not one of his super famous; it's not New England Morning or New England Evening or whatever. Or certainly the one that you're wearing is pretty big. My partner always laughs at me. He whispers, 'his stuff is so lonely.' I don't know, there's something there. You get the feeling in his paintings that he accepts loneliness. It's not this tragic thing. It's sort of the way it is, or the way he sees the world. Although it's interesting when you read he claims, 'Well I wasn't really trying for that.' But it's so obvious. There's something sort of comforting in a weird way. Somebody told me once that the ones who like Hopper are melancholy, heady types. I'm not quite sure what to make of that because I actually like this stuff a lot."

When I asked about Hopper's relation to Norfolk, he hesitated. "That depends on what Norfolk you're talking about. This is the second most transient city in the United States, so a lot of people talk about there being a disjointed sense of community here. If you're from an old Norfolk family and you've lived here for 300 years (and those exist), they would say, 'There's a very strong rich sense of community here.' I've only been here seven years, and I feel I am integrated into the community. For this area, I'm almost considered local. So from my point I would say no, it's not. But I think a lot of people would say it is. Is that a nice vague answer for you?

"Norfolk," he continued, "is a generic city. You don't think of anything when you think of Norfolk. It is the most average place I've ever lived. My partner got a job here in '95. We came from the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, Minnesota."

"Have you two had difficulties?" I wondered.

"Actually," he glissandoed, "I'm the graduate assistant of multicultural student services. We live in sort of 'the neighborhood.' And I work at the university involved with liberal politics, go to the art museum, belong to a reformed Jewish synagogue. I'm in a sort of liberal microcosm. All our friends know, and if they don't know, they wouldn't care anyway. Some people would say, 'oh, there aren't too many gay people here.' I mean, you know, Joe Average would not be tapped into it. But it's everywhere by now."

1In the files was a letter from a patron saying, "This figure is NOT a nun, as you say. It is an English nanny or child's nurse. I am quite old enough to remember such sights. ... At least one of my age bracket friends noticed your error independent of me."

2One psychology journal published an article that proposed that "Hopper used his art as a projection of his wish for reunion with the mother." Of New York Pavements, that author posited, "If nun = sister, the painting might represent … his older sister, Marion." Hopper thought psychological interpretations showed more about the interpreter's tendencies, and this is a classic example. The painting does not show a nun; it shows a British nanny.

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