An Odd Couple at the National Gallery

Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum
Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Wikimedia Commons

Until January 2008, the National Gallery of Art will host timeless works from an odd couple: JMW Turner, the English romantic painter of the sublime, and Edward Hopper, the quintessential American artist of the quotidian.

Turner painted grand scenes from literary sources: bloody battles and infamous shipwrecks immersed in sensual glowing color, tumultuous brush strokes and thick impastos of paint. The exhibit of his watercolors and oil paintings span his entire career, and only one painting depicts London, Turner's home, a distant city veiled by the murkiness of a new industrial age. Hopper, meanwhile, paints iconic scenes of early 20th-century New England and New York City: lighthouses, eerily quiet street corners, empty buildings and nighthawks at a diner.

Where Turner preferred a diffused atmospheric light, Hopper painted a light raking over solid forms, which would wash away all fussiness from his imagery. Turner was a maestro with paint, conducting it in ways still unmatched by any human hand. Hopper, however, struggled to find his form until he was in his 40's, and even his masterpieces have awkward touches that contribute to the undeniable tension in his work. Turner was a member of the official academy by the age of 26 and moved swiftly from watercolor to oil to gain prestige as an artist. Yet Hopper painted a self-portrait wearing a hat and a tie. He could be a salesman or a businessman, and he liked to present himself that way.

JMW Turner courted controversy and fame in England with his daring subject matter and revolutionary painting style. Later, in bustling New York City, Edward Hopper found iconic status slowly and surreptitiously, finding timelessness in the mundane.

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