American artists Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper both worked early in their careers as illustrators. Hopper loathed the work, while Homer, particularly as an artist-reporter covering the Civil War, used illustration as a means to develop his drawing skills.
Homer (1836-1910) was virtually self-taught, while Hopper (1882-1967) studied at the New York School of Art. Among his teachers was the legendary Robert Henri of the New York Ashcan School.
Both artists as young men made their requisite sojourns to Europe, absorbing what they saw. After returning home, both eventually rejected European styles to forge their own brands of American realism.
The Art Institute of Chicago is offering a double dose of that realism in two separate exhibitions on view through May 10: "Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light" and "Edward Hopper," a retrospective. A single ticket admits you to both.
In the exhibitions, curators do not make comparisons or contrasts between the two, who are among the most popular in American art. Instead they take different approaches.
Via the 130 works by Homer, including his Civil War etchings for Harper's Weekly, curators focus on his watercolor techniques and mastery, over three decades, of the difficult medium.
The Hopper retrospective, with its 90 paintings, prints and watercolors, explores the artist's place in American cultural history. No surprise – a mural of his iconic "Nighthawks," the top requested image from the Art Institute – covers the wall of the entry area.
The actual "Nighthawks" painting, completed in 1942 and in the permanent collection of the Chicago museum, is on view in the last galleries, along with other well-known, late-career works that illustrate novelist John Updike's description of Hopper's work as "calm, silent, stoic, luminous and classic."
Both shows are arranged chronologically and thematically, with Homer's works grouped according to the locales where he created them: the rocky coast of Maine, the Adirondacks and Canadian wilderness, the fishing villages of Gloucester, Mass., and Cullercoats in England, and Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba and Bermuda.
Homer created nearly 700 watercolors between 1873 and 1905. They have often been characterized as free, spontaneous images captured outdoors during fishing trips or in moments of leisure, said Martha Tedeschi, curator of the Homer exhibition and of prints and drawings at the Art Institute.
"Indeed many of them do have that feeling – which is exhilarating," she said. "But what we found as we investigated more closely using a variety of analytical conservation technologies is that he often put a great deal of thought and careful planning into his watercolors, sometimes changing his mind and making radical alterations to the image."
Using the latest technology, curators, researchers and conservators spent years examining the Homer watercolors. An interactive Web component in the exhibition allows museum visitors to explore that research and the conservation techniques. Also on display are Homer's paint boxes and brushes and his "bible," his book on color theory by Michel-Eugene Chevreul.
The Hopper retrospective begins with paintings and prints from the 1910s and early '20s, but most of the show is dedicated to Hopper's more mature works, such as his images of Maine lighthouses, Manhattan apartments – some seemingly glimpsed from a passing elevated train – theaters, restaurants and the 19th century Victorian homes of Gloucester and Cape Cod.
Those are in addition to "Nighthawks," "Chop Suey" (1929), "Automat" (1927), "Drug Store" (1927), "Early Sunday Morning (1930) and "New York Movie" (1939), as well as paintings that were not part of the exhibition when it was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Those museums and the Art Institute, the final venue, organized the Hopper exhibition.
Hopper, who was – like his art – austere in personality, once said that all he wanted to do was "paint sunlight on the side of a house." The exhibition shows he did that and more, exposing "the dark corners of modern life, the challenges of human connection and the simple beauty of form and color," according to curators.
A documentary narrated by Steve Martin that is part of the Hopper exhibition features interviews with contemporary artists such as Eric Fischl, George Segal, Ed Ruscha and Red Grooms, who compares Hopper to a dry white wine, saying Hopper didn't do more than he had to do in paring down his pictures.
The documentary has archival footage of Hopper and his outgoing wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper, who also was a student of Henri. She gave up her own art to obsessively detail her husband's work.