Edward Hopper exhibit puts Bowdoin College museum on the map

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BRUNSWICK — Normally a place where people meander quietly between exhibits, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s sanctuary-like atmosphere has been rocked this summer by the work of one man: Edward Hopper.

Thanks to mentions in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and other regional and national publications, the museum has been busier this summer than any time museum administrators can remember.

“We thought the crowds would be cyclical, but it’s busy all day, every day,” Diana Tuite, a curatorial fellow at the museum, said as she navigated the crowded gallery last week.

More than 25,000 people have visited the museum since the exhibit opened on July 15. To put that in perspective, the museum’s annual attendance is generally about 30,000.

Hopper is undoubtedly one of America’s most celebrated painters, and Tuite said Hopper exhibits anywhere will draw a crowd. But she thinks the Bowdoin show has special appeal because it is a compilation of nearly all of Hopper’s Maine work – 88 paintings displayed in the place where he created them.

At the heart of the exhibit are a series of oil sketches made on Monhegan Island between 1916 and 1919 that have never been displayed together before. During that time, Tuite said Hopper was struggling to find his style, transitioning between a “more painterly style to the more schematic Hopper that we know.”

“This piqued people’s interest because they are more familiar with his urban material,” she said, referring to well-known paintings like “Nighthawks,” which depicts customers sitting at a diner late at night.

In addition to the Monhegan sketches, the exhibit features many of Hopper’s later works, including delicate watercolors of historic Portland buildings and a large, bold oil painting of a captain’s house at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth that headlines the show.

The exhibit is unique for the Bowdoin museum in many ways.

It is one of the largest the staff has ever curated, occupying all five galleries on the first floor of the museum. And none of the works on display belong to the museum; they are owned by 30 different donors. In total, Tuite estimated that about a seventh of Hopper’s total body of work is on display.

Tuite said there has been a positive response from members of Maine’s art community, who she said appreciate that the exhibit touts the state’s history as an artists’ colony.

Painter Phil Stevens, of Windham, has visited the show twice and said he found it “almost overwhelming.” Last week he was sitting on a bench in the exhibit’s largest room, surrounded by the crowds and taking notes on Hopper’s form, to inspire his own landscape paintings.

Many Brunswick residents are also visiting the art museum. Nancy Zugehoer said she has seen the exhibit four times, and plans to come back again.

“I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before,” she said, referring specifically to the Monhegan sketches. Usually she travels to Boston or New York to see her favorite artists, she said, and wants to take advantage of the opportunity to see Hopper in her hometown.

It’s clear that the exhibit has been a milestone for the museum, which reopened in 2007 following a $20.8 million renovation. By the time the exhibit ends on October 16, Tuite expects another 15,000 people to come through the museum’s doors.

The exhibit’s overwhelming popularity has also prompted museum staff, who spent all day last Saturday discussing how to proceed in a post-Hopper world, to think differently about the future. Thanks to “Edward Hopper’s Maine,”  the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is on the radar of peer institutions, which Tuite said should make it easier to curate shows like this one in the future.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

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Bowdoin College Museum of Art visitors view the exhibition of “Edward Hopper’s Maine.”

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

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