Gloucester's Inspiration for Artist Edward Hopper

The house that inspired "The Mansard Roof" painting/NPR. i i

This elegant, light-drenched house in Gloucester, Mass., inspired "The Mansard Roof" painting. Houses, not people, inspired Edward Hopper during the summers he spent in the seaside city. Andrea Shea for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Shea for NPR
The house that inspired "The Mansard Roof" painting/NPR.

This elegant, light-drenched house in Gloucester, Mass., inspired "The Mansard Roof" painting. Houses, not people, inspired Edward Hopper during the summers he spent in the seaside city.

Andrea Shea for NPR
Houses in Gloucester, Mass./NPR. i i

Houses in Gloucester, Mass., inspired the work of artist Edward Hopper. Andrea Shea for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Shea for NPR
Houses in Gloucester, Mass./NPR.

Houses in Gloucester, Mass., inspired the work of artist Edward Hopper.

Andrea Shea for NPR
Houses that inspired the work of Edward Hopper/NPR. i i

In this street of homes are some of the houses that inspired the work of Edward Hopper when he spent summers in Gloucester, Mass., in the 1920s. Andrea Shea for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Shea for NPR
Houses that inspired the work of Edward Hopper/NPR.

In this street of homes are some of the houses that inspired the work of Edward Hopper when he spent summers in Gloucester, Mass., in the 1920s.

Andrea Shea for NPR

Edward Hopper is one of America's favorite painters, best-known for his shadowy oils Nighthawks, Luncheonette and Chop Suey that he painted in his New York studio.

But the piece that put Hopper on the map is a light-drenched watercolor called The Mansard Roof, which he painted outdoors in Gloucester, Mass.

Hopper spent summers there in the 1920s, and some of his paintings from that time are part of a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Hopper apparently didn't care much about picturesque New England sailboats or seascapes – he painted houses. For that, Museum of Fine Arts curator Carol Troyen calls him a "contrarian." She explains Hopper's attraction to Victorian architecture, even though the style was out of fashion by the 1920s.

"He really liked the way these houses with their turrets and towers and porches and mansard roofs and ornament cast wonderful shadows," Troyen says. "He always said that his favorite thing was painting sunlight on the side of a house."

The sunlight in The Mansard Roof dances through trees, making shadows on a large porch with billowing yellow awnings. The real-life house is a few miles from downtown in the area known as Rocky Neck.

"The watercolor that he made of this house really was his breakthrough work," Troyen says.

Hopper painted it in 1923, during his first summer in Gloucester. He was 40 years old and unknown, Troyen says. But an art school classmate who later became his wife saw something in that painting. Joan Nivison urged Hopper to send it to the Brooklyn Museum for an annual watercolor show.

"For the 10 years previous, he hadn't sold a single painting," Troyen says. "He'd been in very few exhibitions; critics ignored him. But at her encouragement, he sent a few watercolors to Brooklyn."

It was not only selected for the show, but it also was among a handful of pictures that the museum bought for its permanent collection.

Hopper got $100 for that watercolor in 1923, and from that point, his career took off.

Andrea Shea of member station WBUR visits some of the houses to get the story behind the art.

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