In 1927 Hopper sold his painting Two on the Aisle for $1,500 and bought his first automobile—a used 1925 Dodge. No longer dependent on public transportation, he had more freedom to seek out subject matter. His car also served as a studio on wheels during inclement weather. In 1927 and 1929, the artist drove to Maine, choosing the village of Two Lights (so named for its two lighthouses) on Cape Elizabeth, just south of Portland, as a headquarters for his summer’s work. Although Maine’s rocky coast is famously scenic, he decided to focus on its man-made structures and found many subjects to paint within yards of each other—the twin lighthouses, fog-signal building, coast guard station, and keepers’ houses.
Hopper’s images of lighthouses are some of his most iconic works. Drawn to the buildings’ geometric forms and the patterns of sunlight and shadow they created, the artist produced pictures, which though realistic, were imbued with his emotional response to the subject. Using composition, color, and, above all, the infusion of light, Hopper communicated the solitary nature of these buildings. As his friend and fellow artist Charles Burchfield wrote, “Hopper has put the stamp of his ownership on so many elements. We speak . . . of lighthouse towers almost as though he had invented them instead of being merely their recorder.”
In his 1927 painting Captain Upton’s House, Hopper depicted the buildings of the eastern lighthouse complex at Two Lights in brilliant midday sun, with the house placed in the foreground so that it assumes equal importance to the lighthouse. He portrayed the structures with a carefully calibrated sequence of white, taupe, and gray tones and conveyed the idea of the light beacon by painting the panes of glass in the lantern in shades of gold. The buildings bask in the sunlight under a brilliant blue sky with wispy clouds. Virtually all of Hopper’s Maine paintings were completed outdoors. In the mid-1930s, he would begin working more in his studio, relying upon the “essential element” of imagination rather than direct observation.
After the summer of 1929, Hopper undertook no more painting trips in Maine. In 1930, the Hoppers visited Cape Cod and shortly thereafter bought land and built a house. Later, the artist explained to art historian Katharine Kuh: “I chose to live [on Cape Cod] because it has a longer summer season. I like Maine very much but it gets so cold in the fall.” Hopper’s paintings of these monumental lighthouses transformed the way Maine is seen, not only by visitors but also by its residents.
Edward Hopper. Captain Upton’s House, 1927. Oil on canvas. Collection of Steve Martin.