Jul 222016
 

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Today is the birthday (1882) of Edward Hopper, a prominent US realist painter and printmaker. While he was most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolorist and printmaker in etching. Both in his urban and rural scenes, his spare and finely calculated renderings are instantly recognizable.

Hopper was born in Upper Nyack, New York, a yacht-building center on the Hudson River north of New York City. He was one of two children of a comfortably well-off, middle-class family. His birthplace and boyhood home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, and is now the Edward Hopper House Art Center.

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Hopper’s parents encouraged his art and kept him amply supplied with materials, instructional magazines, and illustrated books. By his teens, he was working in pen-and-ink, charcoal, watercolor, and oil—drawing from nature as well as making political cartoons. In 1895, he created his first signed oil painting, Rowboat in Rocky Cove. It shows his early interest in nautical subjects.

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In high school, he considered being  a naval architect, but after graduation he declared his intention to follow an art career. Hopper’s parents insisted that he study commercial art to have a reliable means of income. In developing his self-image and individualistic philosophy of life, Hopper was influenced by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He later said, “I admire him greatly…I read him over and over again.”

Hopper began art studies with a correspondence course in 1899. Soon he transferred to the New York School of Art and Design, the forerunner of Parsons School for Design. There he studied for six years, with teachers including William Merritt Chase, who instructed him in oil painting. Early on, Hopper modeled his style after Chase and French masters Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Hopper’s first existing oil painting to hint at his famous interiors was Solitary Figure in a Theater (c.1904). During his student years, he also painted dozens of nudes, still life studies, landscapes, and portraits, including his self-portraits.

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In 1905, Hopper landed a part-time job with an advertising agency, where he created cover designs for trade magazines. He came to detest illustration but was bound to it by economic necessity until the mid-1920s. During this time he made three trips to Europe, each centered in Paris, ostensibly to study the emerging art scene there. In fact, however, he studied alone and seemed mostly unaffected by the new currents in art. Later he said that he “didn’t remember having heard of Picasso at all.” He was highly impressed by Rembrandt, particularly his Night Watch, which he said was “the most wonderful thing of his I have seen; it’s past belief in its reality.”

Hopper began painting urban and architectural scenes in a dark palette. Then he shifted to the lighter palette of the Impressionists before returning to the darker palette with which he was comfortable. Hopper later said, “I got over that and later things done in Paris were more the kind of things I do now.” Hopper spent much of his time drawing street and café scenes, and going to the theater and opera. Unlike many of his contemporaries who imitated the abstract cubist experiments, Hopper was attracted to realist art. Later, he admitted to no European influences other than French engraver Charles Méryon, whose moody Paris scenes Hopper imitated.

After returning from his last European trip, Hopper rented a studio in New York City, where he struggled to define his own style. Reluctantly, he returned to illustration. Being a freelancer, Hopper was forced to solicit for projects, and had to knock on the doors of magazine and agency offices to find business. His painting languished: “it’s hard for me to decide what I want to paint. I go for months without finding it sometimes. It comes slowly.” His fellow illustrator, Walter Tittle, described Hopper’s depressed emotional state in sharper terms, seeing his friend “suffering…from long periods of unconquerable inertia, sitting for days at a time before his easel in helpless unhappiness, unable to raise a hand to break the spell.”

In 1912, Hopper traveled to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to seek some inspiration and did his first outdoor paintings in the US. He painted Squam Light, the first of many lighthouse paintings to come.

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In 1913, at the famous Armory Show, Hopper earned $250 after he sold his first painting, Sailing (1911), which he painted over an earlier self-portrait. Hopper was 31, and although he hoped his first sale would lead to others in short order, his career would not catch on for many more years to come. He continued to participate in group exhibitions at smaller venues, such as MacDowell Club of New York. Shortly after his father’s death that same year, Hopper moved to the 3 Washington Square North apartment in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan where he would live for the rest of his life.

The following year he received a commission to make some movie posters and handle publicity for a movie company. Although he did not like the illustration work, Hopper was a lifelong devotee of the cinema and the theatre, both of which became subjects for his paintings and influenced his compositional methods.

At an impasse over his oil paintings, in 1915 Hopper turned to etching. By 1923 he had produced most of his approximately 70 works in this medium, many of urban scenes of both Paris and New York. He also produced some posters for the war effort, as well as continuing with occasional commercial projects. When he could, Hopper did some outdoor watercolors on visits to New England, especially at the art colonies at Ogunquit, Maine, and Monhegan Island.

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During the early 1920s his etchings began to receive public recognition. They expressed some of his later themes, as in Night on the El Train (couples in silence), Evening Wind (solitary female), and The Catboat (simple nautical scene). Two notable oil paintings of this time were New York Interior (1921) and New York Restaurant (1922). He also painted two of his many “window” paintings to come: Girl at Sewing Machine and Moonlight Interior, both of which show a figure (clothed or nude) near a window of an apartment viewed as gazing out or from the outside looking in.

Although these were frustrating years, they did not go by completely without recognition. In 1918, Hopper was awarded the U.S. Shipping Board Prize for his war poster, “Smash the Hun,” and he was able to exhibit. In 1923, Hopper received two awards for his etchings: the Logan Prize from the Chicago Society of Etchers, and the W. A. Bryan Prize.

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By 1923, Hopper’s slow climb finally produced a breakthrough. He re-encountered his future wife Josephine Nivison, an artist and former student of Robert Henri, during a summer painting trip in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They married a year later. She was gregarious and outgoing and he was shy and introverted. She remarked famously, “Sometimes talking to Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” She subordinated her career to his and shared his reclusive life style. The rest of their lives revolved around their spare walk-up apartment in the city and their summers in South Truro on Cape Cod. She managed his career and his interviews, was his primary model, and his life companion.

With Nivison’s help, six of Hopper’s Gloucester watercolors were admitted to an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923. One of them, The Mansard Roof, was purchased by the museum for its permanent collection for the sum of $100. The critics generally raved about his work; one stated, “What vitality, force and directness! Observe what can be done with the homeliest subject.” Hopper sold all his watercolors at a one-man show the following year and finally decided to put illustration behind him.

At 41 Hopper received further recognition for his work although he continued to harbor bitterness about his career, turning down appearances and awards. His Two on the Aisle (1927) sold for a personal record $1,500, enabling Hopper to purchase an automobile, which he used to make field trips to remote areas of New England. In 1929, he produced Chop Suey and Railroad Sunset. The following year, art patron Stephen Clark donated House by the Railroad (1925) to the Museum of Modern Art, the first oil painting it acquired for its collection. Hopper painted his last self-portrait in oil around 1930. Although she posed for many of his paintings, Josephine modeled for only one formal oil portrait by her husband, Jo Painting (1936).

Hopper fared better than many other artists during the Great Depression. His stature took a sharp rise in 1931 when major museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paid thousands of dollars for his works. He sold 30 paintings that year, including 13 watercolors. The following year he participated in the first Whitney Annual, and he continued to exhibit in every annual at the museum for the rest of his life. In 1933, the Museum of Modern Art gave Hopper his first large-scale retrospective.

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Hopper was very productive through the 1930s and early 1940s, producing among many important works New York Movie (1939), Girlie Show (1941), Nighthawks (1942), Hotel Lobby (1943), and Morning in a City (1944). During the late 1940s, however, he suffered a period of relative inactivity. He admitted, “I wish I could paint more. I get sick of reading and going to the movies.” In the two decades to come his health faltered, and he had several prostate surgeries and other medical problems. Nonetheless, in the 1950s and early 1960s, he created several more major works, including First Row Orchestra (1951); as well as Morning Sun and Hotel by a Railroad, both in 1952; and Intermission in 1963.

Hopper died in his studio near Washington Square in New York City on May 15, 1967. His wife, who died ten months later, bequeathed their joint collection of more than three thousand works to the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Here’s my usual gallery featuring mostly Hopper’s landscapes and urban images, the latter inevitably depicting the isolation and barrenness of life in the modern city.

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Nighthawks, showing people in a diner in the wee hours, is justly famous. They are just drinking coffee, but the scene reminds me of early morning breakfasts in diners.

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Flapjacks are classic diner breakfast food. Flapjacks in Britain are oatmeal bars, but in the US they are a version of pancakes. They are made to order in diners on the flat griddle and so are also called griddle cakes. At home you can make them in a large, cast-iron skillet. They are usually served in stacks with butter and maple syrup (maybe with some crisp bacon on the side).

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Flapjacks

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose
4 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
6 tbsp butter, melted
1 ½ cups milk
2 eggs
butter or oil for greasing

Instructions

Heat your griddle or skillet over heat so that water flicked on it beads and dances immediately. Grease it lightly with butter or oil once it is hot.

Meanwhile sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl so that they are combined. Beat together the butter, milk, and eggs vigorously, making sure that the butter does not congeal in the process.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir to mix. Do not worry about making a smooth batter. Do this quickly and don’t worry about lumps. Just make sure there are no pockets of dry ingredients.

Use a small ladle to pour the batter on to the hot griddle, a few at a time. When the top surface begins to pop with bubbles, turn the flapjacks with a spatula. Both sides should be mottled golden and brown.

Serve in stacks with butter and maple syrup.

Dec 162015
 

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Today is the birthday (1775) of Jane Austen, an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary as well as her acclaimed plots have gained her historical importance among scholars and critics.

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Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. The steadfast support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. From her teenage years into her thirties she experimented with various literary forms, including an epistolary novel which she then abandoned, wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.

Austen’s works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th century realism. Her plots, though lightly comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Her works, relatively popular in her lifetime, were first published anonymously and brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews. But the publication in 1869 of her nephew’s A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer.

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Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”, according to one biographer. Only some personal and family letters remain (by one estimate only 160 out of Austen’s 3,000 letters are extant), and her sister Cassandra (to whom most of the letters were originally addressed) burned “the greater part” of the ones she kept and censored those she did not destroy. Other letters were destroyed by the heirs of Admiral Francis Austen, Jane’s brother. Most of the biographical material produced for fifty years after Austen’s death was written by her relatives and reflects the family’s biases in favor of “good quiet Aunt Jane”. Scholars have unearthed little information since. One suspects a rather more torrid life than is known about in available material.

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Austen’s parents, George Austen (1731–1805) and his wife Cassandra (1739–1827), were members of substantial gentry families. George was descended from a family of woollen manufacturers, which had risen through the professions to the lower ranks of the landed gentry. Cassandra was a member of the prominent Leigh family. They married on 26 April 1764 at Walcot Church in Bath. From 1765 until 1801, that is, for much of Jane’s life, George Austen served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon, Hampshire, and a nearby village. From 1773 until 1796, he supplemented this income by farming and by teaching three or four boys at a time who boarded at his home.

Austen’s immediate family was large: six brothers — James (1765–1819), George (1766–1838), Edward (1768–1852), Henry Thomas (1771–1850), Francis William (Frank) (1774–1865), Charles John (1779–1852) — and one sister, Cassandra Elizabeth (Steventon, Hampshire, 9 January 1773 – 1845), who, like Jane, died unmarried. Cassandra was Austen’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. Of her brothers, Austen felt closest to Henry, who became a banker and, after his bank failed, an Anglican clergyman. Henry was also his sister’s literary agent. His large circle of friends and acquaintances in London included bankers, merchants, publishers, painters, and actors: he provided Austen with a view of social worlds not normally visible from a small parish in rural Hampshire.

George was sent to live with a local family at a young age because, as Austen biographer Le Faye describes it, he was “mentally abnormal and subject to fits”. He may also have been deaf and mute. Charles and Frank served in the navy, both rising to the rank of admiral. Edward was adopted by his fourth cousin, Thomas Knight, inheriting Knight’s estate and taking his name in 1812.

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As Austen grew into adulthood, she continued to live at her parents’ home, carrying out those activities normal for women of her age and social standing: she practiced the fortepiano, assisted her sister and mother with supervising servants, and attended female relatives during childbirth and older relatives on their deathbeds. She sent short pieces of writing to her newborn nieces Fanny Catherine and Jane Anna Elizabeth. Austen was particularly proud of her accomplishments as a seamstress. She also attended church regularly, socialized frequently with friends and neighbors, and read novels—often of her own composition—aloud with her family in the evenings. Socializing with the neighbors often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it”.

When Austen was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a nephew of neighbors, visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London to train as a barrister. Lefroy and Austen would have been introduced at a ball or other neighborhood social gathering, and it is clear from Austen’s letters to Cassandra that they spent considerable time together: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” The Lefroy family intervened and sent him away at the end of January. Marriage was impractical, as both Lefroy and Austen must have known. Neither had any money, and he was dependent on a great-uncle in Ireland to finance his education and establish his legal career. If Tom Lefroy later visited Hampshire, he was carefully kept away from the Austens, and Jane Austen never saw him again.

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In December 1800, Austen’s father unexpectedly announced his decision to retire from the ministry, leave Steventon, and move the family to Bath. While retirement and travel were good for the elder Austens, Jane was shocked to be told she was moving from the only home she had ever known (ultimately a main theme in Persuasion). An indication of Austen’s state of mind is her lack of productivity as a writer during the time she lived at Bath. She was able to make some revisions to Susan, and she began and then abandoned a new novel, The Watsons, but there was nothing like the productivity of the years 1795–1799.

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In December 1802, Austen received her only known proposal of marriage. She and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke. Their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, had recently finished his education at Oxford and was also at home. Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. As described by Caroline Austen, Jane’s niece, and Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant, Harris was not attractive—he was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. However, Austen had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realized she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal, but in 1814, Austen wrote a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, who had asked for advice about a serious relationship, telling her that “having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection”.

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This terse biographical resume is my way of introducing the backdrop of Austen’s novels, which focus largely on the problems that women in Regency England on the lower rungs of the landed gentry faced in maintaining their status in society. Upward marriage was their primary recourse. So here comes my usual disclaimer. The travails of people who don’t work for a living do not interest me. This “poor me” attitude cuts no ice with me. If you feel hard done by because you rely on the work or wealth of others, go live in a Yorkshire coal mining slum picking coal from slag heaps for starvation wages and long hours and then tell me how put upon you are.

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Austen’s novels do indeed document the lives of “poor” women in Regency England – “poor” meaning that they can’t host (but can attend) charming balls, and have very few servants. Marriage to well-to-do men is their ticket out. So we are all supposed to cheer for Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice because she finally sees how wrong she was about Mr Darcy, who is fabulously rich, and marries him, whilst her elder sister Jane, marries the equally rich Mr Bingley despite problems at the outset. Yawn. This is the stuff of expensive modern movies that devotees fawn over because of their rich sets, lavish costumes, and (generally poor) attempts at recreating elite society in England at the turn of the 19th century, with obligatory dance and dining scenes and other such nonsense as the context for dialogues concerning intrigue and ambition.

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Persuasion was the first book I taught as a shiny new professor of 29 teaching a Freshman Studies course, newly designed as a cross between “great books” and college writing. Half the books were set by existing faculty, and half I could choose for myself. Other set books included Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, The Communist Manifesto, and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. The course was an unmitigated disaster, as is any course designed by committee. I had no idea what to do with Persuasion. It did not resonate with me nor with any of my students. I could talk quite knowledgeably about the lives of retired sea captains and admirals featured in the novel because, as a teen, I had avidly studied the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. But the daily lives of the English elite of the period was foreign to me (I grew up in Australia), and of zero interest, except inasmuch as they spoke of the ills and abuses of the class system that doggedly lingers to this day. You would have to pay me an awful lot of money to teach Austen again, and even then I would simply rail against the world that they portray.

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We don’t have any recipes directly from Austen’s pen, but there are a number of them extant from close relatives that are typically brief, but easy enough to follow if you are a cook. Here’s her sister-in-law’s trifle recipe (Martha Lloyd’s Household Book):

A Trifle

Take three Naple biscuits. Cut them in slices. Dip them in sack. Lay them on the bottom of your dish. Then make a custard of a pint of cream and five eggs and put over them. Them make a whipt syllabub as light as possible to cover the whole. The higher it is piled, the handsomer it looks.

Here, too, is a contemporary recipe for syllabub, which is a froth of eggs and cream folded with citrus flavoring and sweetened wine. I’d add fruit such as raspberries or strawberries for a little more variety.

A Whipt Syllabub

Take a pt of cream with a spoonfull of orange flower water 2 or 3 ounces of fine sugar ye juice of a lemon ye white of 3 eggs wisk these up together & having in your glasses rhennish wine & sugar & clarret & sugar lay on ye broth with a spoon heapt up as leight as you can.