Edward Hopper and J.M.W. Turner: Two Old Men and the Sea
Two paintings of the sea by two artists. Looking at each as if we knew nothing of their creators, something of their respective dispositions is obvious right away. J.M.W. Turner's work is wild and stormy; you know he’s eccentric and passionate. Edward Hopper’s is detached and moody, angular rather than organic, with a sardonic undercurrent you can’t quite put your finger on.
The Snow Storm’s story is well known. It’s one of the most famous works by one of the most famous artists in history. Around 1842, J.M.W. was caught in a storm aboard the ship the Ariel. He allegedly asked to be tied to the mast to authentically experience man against the gods, or at the very least, man against the gales.
This might be romanticizing the Romantic painting. Without proof of the incident, there are two teams: one that upholds the anecdote as truth, and one that dismisses it as myth. I would cast my lots with Team A. It fits with the tempestuous temperament of Turner, but more importantly, it’s the exact story the painting itself tells. It’s a jewel among a multitude of masterpieces, and perhaps the wildness that sets it apart is the experiential. That artists are Method Actors is no surprise- we have a strange habit of stepping into all manner of harrowing scenarios in search of the story.
Now Hopper had a mean streak and violent temper that reared its ugly head in his relationship with his wife, but he was generally a more reticent character with rather staid emotions. His work is more introspective, more thoughtful. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Hopper painting that shows his hotheaded side. His art shows disconnection and resignation, and often melancholy, but not rage.
This particular painting from 1951 is not one of his famous works, and it’s not even one of his best. It’s as banal a picture of the sea as there ever was.
Except, it’s not. If some of Hopper’s paintings seem vaguely haunted, this one’s ghosts are palpable. Hopper gave Rooms by the Sea an alternate title in his notes- The Jumping Off Place. After discovering this darkly irreverent tidbit, a thin, icy breeze creeps into the frame.
These are only two of a trillion acts of creativity inspired by the ocean, but both are worthy of contemplation. In Turner’s, we are there at the mast, with the cold waves whipping our faces into raw meat. We are the crossroads of the elements, captive to our fate in between life and death. In Hopper’s surreal sunny calm, we’re already gone.
Lorette C. Luzajic
Founder of The Ekphrastic Review, Lorette C. Luzajic is a mixed media artist working in collage, paint, poetry, and photography. Visit her at www.mixedupmedia.ca.
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