PORTLAND – In 1927, when Edward Hopper was still in his mid-40s and finding his form as an artist, he celebrated the sale of a painting for the then-handsome sum of $1,500 by buying an automobile.

He was living in Greenwich Village at the time, in the same apartment that was his home and studio most of his life. Loaded with supplies, Hopper motored out of Manhattan, bound for Maine.

He had enjoyed Maine the summer before, spending seven weeks in Rockland and painting more than 20 watercolors. This time, his visit came with the freedom of automobile travel, enabling him to move beyond the artist hot spots of Ogunquit, Rockland and Monhegan, all of which were accessible from Boston and New York by train or boat.

Among Hopper’s stops were Cape Elizabeth and Portland. Some of his work from that productive summer, including images from Portland Head Light and one of Maine’s most recognizable architectural landmarks, are included in a new exhibition opening Thursday at the Portland Museum of Art.

“American Moderns: Masterworks on Paper from the Wadsworth Antheneum Museum of Art, 1910-1960,” features about 100 pieces, mostly watercolors, from such titans of American modernism as Hopper, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe and Ellsworth Kelly.

This is a traveling show highlighting a segment of the collecting legacy of the Wadsworth Antheneum in Hartford, Conn., said Thomas Denenberg, chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art.

“We tend to forget, but Hartford for 100 years was a really wealthy city, and this collection is under-appreciated and under-studied,” Denenberg said.

Everything in this show are works on paper, which means that because of their sensitivity to light exposure, they travel infrequently. The show has just two stops — in Portland for the summer, and later in Texas.

Particularly for Portland audiences, this show is significant because there is so much Maine in it, along with several local scenes courtesy mostly of Hopper. These Hoppers have never been shown in Portland before, Denenberg said.

After years of struggles, Hopper was feeling comfortable with his ascending painting career when he came to Maine in 1927. He was still a few years away from his breakthrough, but he had begun selling his paintings, and was encouraged by his success.

He made paintings throughout Cape Elizabeth, including scenes of the village, the lighthouses at Two Lights, the Spurwink church and, of course, Portland Head Light. He made sweeping views of the lighthouse and compound buildings, but the painting in this show is a tight view of the main house, “Captain Strout’s House, Portland Head.”

Remarkably, noted Denenberg, Hopper chose to lop off the top of the light tower in this painting, focusing instead on the sturdy nature of the stately residence. With his simple, light-touch technique, the painting is an exercise in composition and light, and accents Hopper’s long-held interest in New England architecture.

The other Portland-centric piece in the show is from that same summer, and presumably that same driving trip. Hopper’s “Custom House, Portland” is an homage to the city’s most noteworthy example of post-Civil War architecture. Since its construction it the late 1800s, the U.S. Custom House standing between Fore and Commercial streets has been a favorite target of artists.

It likely caught Hopper’s eye for all the same reasons: its elegant design, imposing granite construction, handsome circular entry way and distinguished turrets.

Hopper depicted none of that in his painting.

Instead, he chose a side view of the building up by Fore Street, looking east. He noted the arched windows, but neglected the rest of the building’s notable features.

There are several other Hoppers in this show, including one from Rockland and some from Cape Cod. But for local audiences, the other key participant in “American Moderns” is Marin.

Marin came to Maine for the first time in 1914, and spent the late summer and early fall painting in Casco Bay. We know Marin best for the work that he completed farther up the coast, first in Stonington and later at Cape Split in South Addison.

But his first taste of Maine was Casco Bay.

“Big Wood Island” (1914) is one of the earliest Marin paintings of the state. He stayed at an island off Phippsburg, and this view is of a distant Wood Island, viewed from behind an outcropping of rocks and trees. With its deep greens and blues, it suggests a resplendent summer day in Maine.

“American Moderns” represents a unique moment in American art, Denenberg said. Our nation was restless. With the ease of travel encouraging expanded horizons, the artists led the way. With them, they brought the convenience of watercolors instead of oil paints.

At the time, watercolors were only beginning to be seen as a credible medium. The success that these artists had with watercolors helped ensure their acceptance as a serious art form.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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