Art: The Silent Witness

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Less recognized, but equally true, is the fact that Hopper, at 74, expresses the present moment of American life with all the vigor and attachment of youth. The tradition he practices has nothing to do with convention. It involves no set approach, and never stoops to slavish copying. Hopper seldom sketches on the spot; he has not painted an oil direct from nature in 15 years. What he shares with the other great realists in American painting history is a heartfelt regard for the here and now, together with an overmastering desire to understand it intimately and express it clearly.

New Men & Fresh Eyes. In an age when equality under God is too often confused with sameness, and all races and places are presumed to be really alike underneath, Americans are apt to underrate their own heritage. Not Hopper, who says flatly that "a nation's art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people." A sampling of the best American painting can prove Hopper's point (see color pages).

The evidence shows, too, that realism in art can be the precise opposite of stodginess. True realism rises to the challenges of continual change, visible and invisible. It showed its strength in the guardians at the gates of American painting history. Copley and Benjamin West, who studied a new breed of men with fresh eyes. When West first saw the famed Apollo Belvedere in Rome, he cried out: "My God, how like a Mohawk warrior!" And as John Adams said in describing Copley's immortal gallery of founding fathers: "You can scarcely help discoursing with them, asking questions and receiving answers."

American realism reached another early peak in dashing, snuff-snuffling Gilbert Stuart. Once, when a customer complained that Stuart had failed to capture his wife's elusive beauty, the master snapped: "What damned business is this of a portrait painter? You bring him a potato and expect he will paint a peach!"

One truth that U.S. painting has proved time and again is that realism and romanticism need not be mutually exclusive. It was Washington Allston who first added a romantic dimension to the nation's art, early in the igth century. His work breathes originality, but, as he himself remarked, "Every mind would appear original if every man had the power of projecting his own into the minds of others." Edward Hopper, who also has that power, puts it more concretely: "What lives in a painting is the personality of the painter."

"I've Seen That!" With Thomas Cole's founding of the "Hudson River School." the emphasis in U.S. art shifted from people to nature. Cole's Arcadian views, seemingly observed through a dusty brass telescope, opened the way for a score of great artists who wedded themselves to the infinitely various U.S. landscape. Then, in the supposedly materialistic era following the Civil War, three titans loomed on the horizon of U.S. art, as they still do today: Ryder, Homer and Eakins. Ryder saw life as something of a dream, Homer as a struggle, and Eakins as a solemn commitment. Each pictured it as he saw it, with complete integrity, so their works are as different as morning, noon and night. Yet each can make the viewer exclaim, "IVe seen that!" Their strong recognition value bespeaks a reverence for reality common to all three.

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