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The iconic American artist Edward Hopper is best known for his shadowy oil paintings titled "Nighthawks," "Luncheonette" and "Chop Suey" - works 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." Hopper painted that outdoors in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the 1920s. Paintings from that time are part of a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Andrea Shea of member station WBUR toured Gloucester with the curator.
ANDREA SHEA: Edward Hopper apparently didn't care much about picturesque New England sailboats or seascapes. He painted houses here. 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.
Ms. CAROL TROYEN (Curator, Museum of Fine Arts): He really liked the way these houses with their turrets and towers and porches and mansard roofs and ornament cast wonderful shadows. He always said that his favorite thing was painting sunlight on the side of a house.
SHEA: The sunlight in Hopper's painting "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 an area known as Rocky Neck.
Ms. TROYEN: The watercolor he made of this house really was his breakthrough work.
SHEA: Hopper painted "The Mansard Roof" in 1923, during his first summer in Gloucester. He was 40 years old and unknown, according to Troyen. But an art school classmate, who later became his wife, saw something in "The Mansard Roof" painting. Joan Nivison urged Hopper to send it to the Brooklyn Museum for its annual watercolor show.
Ms. TROYEN: I suspect he didn't have much hope for the likelihood of his success since for the 10 years previous, he hadn't sold a single painting. He'd been in very few exhibitions, critics ignored him, but he sent this watercolor and a few others to Brooklyn. To his amazement, they not only selected it for the show, but it was one of a very small handful of pictures they bought for the permanent collection.
SHEA: How much did Hopper get?
Ms. TROYEN: He got $100 for that watercolor in 1923. That isn't bad money. And more important, it was a real vote of confidence, not only a sale, but a sale to a prominent museum. And from this point, his career took off.
Mr. TORY BAGSHAW(ph): My dad tried to purchase the painting in the '60s from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He's very fond of the house and anything associated with it.
SHEA: Tory Bagshaw grew up in "The Mansard Roof" house and still lives here. His parents bought the place in 1962. Bagshaw says art students often set up outside trying to do what Hopper did. Even he has painted the house but not on canvass. Bagshaw, a contractor by trade, painted the trim and siding.
(Soundbite of door opening)
SHEA: He takes curator Carol Troyen up to the widow's walk perched above the famous roof.
Ms. TROYEN: I don't think Hopper ever had this view from the top of the house, looking over the harbor.
Mr. BAGSHAW: The sunsets here - they're beautiful. It faces southwest and northwest. And the light here is enchanting. It's different almost every night.
(Soundbite of door chime)
SHEA: A few blocks away, in her second floor gallery and studio, painter Ellen Croger(ph) explains why the light in Gloucester is so unique.
Ms. ELLEN CROGER (Painter): Any peninsula or any cape that juts out into the water has at least three sides of reflecting sunlight. That's why you see so many flowers in places where normally with wind and salt you don't see them. And a lot of artists end up in places like that, like Cape Cod, as well as up here. And on a cape, there's a pink or a golden glow to the light. But up here, it's just bright white to me.
SHEA: Croger is a fan of Hopper's work, saying he makes architecture purer. Curator Carol Troyen thinks Hopper's paintings have an abstract quality that gives them life beyond pure documentary.
Ms. TROYEN: And Hopper had a gift for pointing out and making us see what is interesting, what is wonderful, what is evocative about scenes and buildings and places that we would otherwise just walk by.
SHEA: Hopper never showed the work he created here here. Troyen thinks he was saving it for his dealer in New York, where the painter really wanted to make it, and ultimately did. And by 1928, Hopper ran out of houses to paint in Gloucester and looked elsewhere for inspiration. He found it in New York and on Cape Cod, where the painter would summer and capture the light for the rest of his life.
For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.