Jordan Ogg profiles two paintings on sale at Christie's in New York this week
Auctions are a great way to view art, even if you don’t intend to buy anything. On 23rd May, Christie’s in New York are holding a sale of American art, which includes a few paintings that may interest fans of island art.
Edward Hopper’s Blackwell’s Island is the centrepiece of the sale, and while the editors understand that most readers probably don’t have $15m (the lower end of the estimated value) burning a hole in their pocket, we hope the image above gives a momentary taste, albeit a digital one, of this exquisite work of art.
Hopper’s painting depicts Roosevelt Island, in the East River of New York city. Over the years the island has enjoyed several monikers. It was called ‘Minnehanonck’ by the native Lenape, ‘Varkens Eylandt’ by New Netherlanders, ‘Blackwell's Island’ during the colonial era, and from 1921 to 1973, ‘Welfare Island’.
It was home to some of New York’s earliest institutions. In 1832 a prison was opened there, whose famous inmates would include the actress Mae West, incarcerated on public obscenity charges for her play Sex, andthe jazz singer Billie Holiday, after her arrest on prostitution charges. Then in 1839 the New York Lunatic Asylum was opened. Its residents suffered terrible conditions, and at once stage it held 1,700 patients, more than double its capacity. The asylum has since been demolished, all except its looming Octagon Tower, which remains as a monument to the grim history of early 19th century welfare.
Hopper was drawn to New York’s East River and used the banks and bridges as his subject several times between 1911 and 1935. Christie’s head of American Art in New York, Elizabeth Sterling, says the varied architecture and isolation of the location was a likely attraction for painter: “Unlike his contemporaries who were drawn to the vibrant energy of a bustling metropolis, Hopper focused on the quiet aspects of the city. Even his choice of architecture was of an earlier age than the new skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building, which captivated his peers.”
According to the catalogue for the sale: ‘Blackwell’s Island acts much as a film still, a hallmark of Hopper’s most celebrated works, creating a suspended narrative that continually engages the viewer’s psyche and imagination as one tries to reconcile oneself with a scene that eludes resolution. Hopper’s dramatic effects of light and shadow on buildings silhouetted against a band of largely cloudless sky add to the pervasive and haunting silence of the painting. The swirling band of cobalt blue water acts as a physical barrier between the viewer and the subject, symbolizing a psychological distance and creating a sense of unease.’
Quite a different effect is at work in a second painting offered at the auction. Newell Convers Wyeth’s Norry Seavey Hauling Traps Off Blubber Island was painted in 1938 as a present for Roger Scaife, an editor and friend of the artist. It depicts Blubber Island, also known as Blubber Butt, a small outcrop located off the coast of Port Clyde, Maine.
Wyeth rarely identified his subjects, so his portrayal and naming of a local lobsterman hauling creels is suggestive of his fondness for the place. In a letter to his daughter, Ann McCoy, written the same year in which the work was presented, Wyeth spoke of his close connection to the Maine landscape: ‘My imagination is suddenly whipped into an almost exalted appreciation of the magnificence of the little isolated and unrelated scene before me, and I am astounded at its vast beauty and its sublime importance, and am made to realize in one poignant spasm, that and magnificence possible for human sight and spiritual pleasure. The limitless ocean itself, the mountains and valleys of the world are of no greater importance in appearance of significance.’
Aye to that.