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August 11 2012

Through Edward Hopper's eyes: in search of an artist's seaside inspiration

Gail Albert Halaban follows in the footsteps of the great American artist, photographing the elegant houses he painted almost 100 years ago from the same vantage point

Gail Albert Halaban has identified 16 houses in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that were painted by Edward Hopper over several summers in the 1920s and she reckons there are a few more that have, as yet, escaped her notice. Over the past three years, Albert Halaban, a fine art photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Time magazine, has been tracking down the Hopper houses in Gloucester, a picturesque city on the Atlantic coast, and photographing them from the same vantage points that the great American artist used to paint them from nearly a century ago.

Albert Halaban was not trying to imitate Hopper's watercolours, nor was she the first to discover the houses – the subject of The Mansard Roof (1923), a large, elegant residence in the city's Rocky Neck area, has had homage paid to it by Hopper enthusiasts for decades. Her interest has more personal motivations – her father grew up in Gloucester and she's been spending summers there since childhood, so was intrigued to see how another artist had responded to the city. "It's given me a fresh set of eyes on something I know very well."

Hopper is a name that crops up regularly in relation to her work, particularly Out My Window, a series of photographs – soon to be a book – in which she portrays New Yorkers at home as viewed from neighbouring apartments. "People kept comparing me to Hopper and I wanted to know where that came from."

She was also keen to make contact with the occupants of houses and find out how living in places of art-historical interest had affected them. "Some were aware of it; others had no idea. I called on one old man in his late 90s and he didn't know his house had been in a Hopper painting. He was very excited because he had lived in another Hopper house in Gloucester as a child and that house had burnt down."

At first, she was surprised by the differences between the Gloucester paintings and Hopper's better-known later works. "When I think of Hopper I think of Nighthawks and all those New York paintings. His work is very moody, mysterious and lonely, but the Gloucester pictures are bright and sunny and much less dramatic."

When she photographed the houses, however, she found subtle connections and similarities. "I tried to stand where Hopper stood, to make the composition the same, and was amazed that, for so many of the houses, he picked the least pretty perspective. In Houses of Squam Light, there's this picturesque lighthouse just to the left of frame and he cropped it out. Gloucester is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to, but he seems to have depicted the more hard-edged, working-class end of it. He turned his back on some of the prettiest places, which is what he did in his New York work."

She was also intrigued to discover that Hopper, who is regarded as a realist and who painted the houses in Gloucester with great precision, manipulated one important aspect of what he saw. "He changed the light and shadows in his pictures a lot and combined different times of day so that the shadow might go in two directions – that's how he created his narrative, his drama." Albert Halaban responded to this by taking a more painterly approach to her photographs and manipulating the light as Hopper had done in the 1920s. "The houses that he painted remain, but the narratives he created only exist on his canvases. Standing in the same places, I was inspired to take my own liberties and create narratives that are my own."

Out My Window is published by Random House


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June 11 2011

The 10 best summer paintings

The Observer's art critic Laura Cumming selects the paintings that best evoke the exhilaration and the languor of summer

1 Claude Monet Poppy Field (1873)

This is the summer you look at in winter, reproduced on millions of sitting room walls, the painting that transports you to the drifting, buzzing heat of those waist-high French fields through which pretty women stroll with parasols. The nearest poppies are disproportionately large to get across the impact of such intense red and parts of the painting hover on the verge of abstraction. The mother and child are probably Monet's wife and daughter. He showed the work at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874 and it's now one of the best-loved paintings in the world. See the painting here

2 Pieter Bruegel The Harvesters (1565)

Towering wheat, plump peasants, comic stooks: you wend your way through this fabulous late summer landscape like a roving peasant yourself, spotting ripe pears, scattering birds, noticing the distant monks bathing naked. The scythed path leads the eye into the faraway distance. The first modern landscape in western art is the claim for Bruegel's Harvesters – all reality, no allegory – from the Seasons cycle. It really puts you on the spot, makes you feel the soporific weight of all that warmth. It is, like the rest of the cycle, democratic, affectionate, atmospheric and almost proverbial. See the painting here

3 Edward Hopper Second Storey Sunlight (1960)

This is the dark side of summer – strange goings-on in broad sunlight, longing and isolation even in the heat. The house is typical Hopper, white clapboard, pitched roof, presenting itself silently against the cobalt sky. Sun strikes the old lady in black and the young girl waiting for someone or something. But between them is a lonely void. What is their relationship? Why is the house turned to the sun as if watching for something too? The trees gather menacingly behind the building and inside looks starkly empty as the sun hits the back wall of the room. See the painting here

4 Christian Kobke Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle (1834)

The marvellous Danish artist Christian Købke has climbed to the rooftops to take the summer view by surprise. Here is the dark ridge, the cool blue water beyond, the landscape repeating these horizontals in ever-hazier stripes beneath a motionless sky that fills three-quarters of the picture. It is a hymn to summer light and immense panoramas, the kind of thing no photograph can quite contain. And it's all witnessed by strange surrogates: a solid brick chimney and an elaborate spire turned gold and silver in the sunlight face the view amazed, like something out of Edward Hopper. See the painting here

5 Isaac Levitan Summer Evening (1899)

It would be hard to think of a more beautiful image of summer evening light turning field to fire than this delicately luminous painting. The parched road begins among the cooling foreground shadows, implicitly where we stand, and stretches across the still-warm field to the trees in the distance. It feels like the cusp of autumn, certainly the end of summer's lease. Levitan was master of the "mood landscape", which catch the understated beauty of provincial Russia with a tinge of melancholy. Close friend and favourite artist of Chekhov, he was dead months later at the age of 39. See the painting here

6 David Cox Rhyl Sands (1854)

A summer's day on the French coast, as painted by Boudin or Monet – that's what this picture looks like. And it never ceases to amaze that the subject is actually a day at the artist's favourite resort on the Welsh coast, that David Cox is English and that the picture was painted around 1855, before impressionism was a glimmer in the eye. The sweep of beach, so fresh and breezy it looks as though the sand might have caught in the paint, stretches away in that blurry miasma of light, air and liquid motion that so perfectly captures a day at the seaside. See the painting here

7 David Hockney A Bigger Splash (1967)

Which other living painter has created such a potent image of high summer, of a day so hot the only escape is to plunge into a cool pool? Hockney's swimmer has vanished into the depths, leaving only scattered water in his wake. It is a stunning diagram of 60s California, of blazing noon and pristine pool, of liquid blossoming into frozen chaos. "It took me two weeks," Hockney wrote, "to paint this event that lasts two seconds." Few works of British art have so completely entered the public imagination. See the painting here

8 Bridget Riley To a Summer's Day (1980)

Sky blue, rose, violet and sunshine yellow: stripes of summer colours twist this way and that, ribbon-like, across the horizontal canvas. The motion is somewhere between wave and shivering cornfield. And each fluctuation produces a slightly different optical hit and temperature. The whole painting vibrates in the mind and eye, which is very much the spirit of Riley's art, echoing the truth that nothing in the seen world ever stays still. Her title alludes to Shakespeare's sonnet, suggesting only a comparison with summer. Her picture presents an analogy with the exhilaration of summer. See the painting here

9 Paul Gauguin Tahitian Landscape (circa 1893)

Everyone knows the legend of the stockbroker turned artist who abandoned his family and took the banana boat to Tahiti for free food and sex, painting super-fertile scenes of sultry girls, primitive statues and strange fruit. But Gauguin also celebrated the landscape around him with an unrivalled intensity of colour that would inspire the fauves. Here, the path turns red-gold in the heat as it runs between viridian trees towards a mountain of sun-baked rock. Up close, the paint is inert, dry and pressed flat into the canvas. But stand a few inches away and the image bursts with brilliance and graphic power. See the painting above

10 Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin Basket With Wild Strawberries (1761)

Not just a heap of summer fruit, but a whole glowing mountain of pleasure. Chardin's great masterpiece of wild strawberries is full of latent heat, his paint mimicking the warm, soft flesh of the berries as miraculously as it conjures the silvery condensation on the glass of cold water. His brush smooths round and round the peach, round the cellophane-bright cherries, shaping the fruit with circular relish. Chardin loves what he paints and makes you love it too. Diderot called him "the Great Magician". Proust revered him for bringing inanimate objects to life "as in The Sleeping Beauty". See the painting here


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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