Discover the significance and historical context of Edward Hopper's 1929 painting The Lighthouse at Two Lights through a talk by one of our college interns.
Kent Lydecker: As part of her summer 2006 internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Tatsiana, a recent graduate of Kenyon College, gave public tours in the galleries. Here is an excerpt.
Tatsiana: My name is Tatsiana. I graduated from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Originally I'm from Belarus. And we're going to talk—we're in the modern art galleries right now, in "American Art from 1900 to 1945"—and we're going to talk about Edward Hopper and his painting made in 1929, The Lighthouse at Two Lights.
This painting depicts a lighthouse that actually exists till nowadays, and it's in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. In this location, Edward Hopper had his summer house, so he used to go there for the summer very often, starting from 1914, and in one of these trips he made this painting, which is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. And it depicts a lighthouse and guard station located on a hill above the ocean shore. However, in this painting Hopper avoids showing water, so the lighthouse is kind of alienated and taken away from its original context. And I think it's very important because of the context in which the painting was made, because Edward Hopper, who as many other artists from that period—he went abroad, he studied in France, then he studied in the New York School with Robert Henri—however, his personality and his style is most fully developed during the Depression era, so this painting in 1929 kind of coincides with the collapse of the stock market.
Hopper is a great representative of the Depression era, and he is one of the artists who managed to capture beautifully the spirit and the state of mind from this period, from late 1920s, early 1930s, when a lot of people were affected by unemployment, inflation, which came with the Great Depression and also with the Dust Bowl. So in his painting, he manages to capture the spirit and kind of show through to a landscape the feeling and the state of mind in the whole society.
This landscape is typical for Hopper. It doesn't have people in it. It's only a building in its natural environment. However the composition is cut in such a way so that we get this feeling of frozenness and eternity. This moment seems to be continuous in time, without beginning and without end. This lighthouse seems to be standing there forever, from the beginning of time and for a long, long time. And even though there are no people in the picture, Hopper usually uses windows to create this effective presence. You usually get these dark, black windows with half-closed shadows that create this feeling that maybe there is someone inside that you can't see but the person can see you back. So someone is looking back on you but you don't see them. And it's a great way to reflect the feeling in society of alienation and reservedness and closeness, when people relied only on themselves, because Depression brought not only unemployment and difficult economic situation in the country, it also brought problems in the community and the families because people were migrating, people couldn't help each other, they were just relying on themselves in terms of surviving, basic surviving. So Hopper, in this respect, manages to show this feeling of depression, alienation, loneliness, and also loss of faith and loss of any meaning of life.
Another thing that reflects this feeling of depression in the society is that we don't see any water, any sailboats, anything around the lighthouse, and as it looks like the lighthouse is taken out of the context, it doesn't have any purpose, it just stands there forever and ever and ever. And it also reflects this feeling that many people had of being—of just not having any purpose in their lives, just meaninglessness of their lives and their experience.
In college, I was an Art History major and American Studies concentration. And I believe that art is a great way to visualize and to reflect cultural and social and political situations. Because it is an individual vision of specific artist, but it reflects bigger trends in society. And I'm specifically interested in 1930s, Depression-era, New Deal period. So I think Hopper is the great artist who captured the feeling in this period, of this time. There is just something which is hard to describe about him but it really gets you.
Kent Lydecker: Learn more about Edward Hopper's 1929 painting, The Lighthouse at Two Lights, and about the Metropolitan Museum's internship programs, on our website, metmuseum.org. Each year, college and graduate students participate in internships that enable them to teach, to work in various departments of the Museum, and to take part in seminars and discussions. This is Kent Lydecker, the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Associate Director for Education at the Metropolitan, and this has been an Antenna Audio production.