In Truro Attic, Discovery of a Trove of Hopper Drawings and Diaries

Jan 22, 2018

A study by Edward Hopper from the exhibit at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Credit Stephanie Guyer-Stevens

Edward Hopper is probably Provincetown’s most famous artist, but until a few years ago, not many of his works could be found on the Cape.  The Provincetown Art Association and Museum had one watercolor—by his wife, Jo—and a couple of Edward’s sketches from art school. Then one day Museum Director Chris McCarthy’s phone rang.

“The excitement level blew out of the thermometer,”  McCarthy said, remembering the moment.  “But then I had to reel it back in and be practical about it."

Edward Hopper’s house in Truro had been left to two brothers, Anton and Larry Schiffenhaus, from New Jersey. The brothers, McCarthy explains, hired a local handyman named Charlie to help them with the house.

“Well, Charlie the handyman found all the drawings and the papers in the boxes that were in the attic. And because the will stated that you get the house and its contents, the Schiffenhaus were able to keep all of these drawings—which are 96 by him, Edward, and 69 by Jo, plus the diaries that she kept, which really are as valuable as the drawings, in that they outline their very personal lives.”

The brothers deliberated what to do with the drawings and diaries for a long time, not wanting to break up the collection among family members. Finally they decided to donate it all to Provincetown Art Association and Museum. McCarthy said the Hopper collection now residing at PAAM is second only to the collection of his paintings at the Whitney Museum.  

“This is what led up to what people see on the walls of the Whitney,” McCarthy said. “We have the drawings and the backup and a lot of the information that led to the studies—or, more, method—in terms of his thinking about what he was going to be painting . I found a quote that he said, ‘I never wanted my drawings to feel finished, because the painting would look like a copy of the drawing.’ So the drawing was really the stepping stones, and taking the ideas out of his brain and putting them on paper, transferring that either to watercolor or oil on canvas.”

According to Chris, PAAM has gone from zero to sixty in terms of the prominence of their Hopper collection. But perhaps more important, she said, having this collection on the Cape provides an insight into Hopper’s work that no other location can offer. 

Pages from one of Jo Hopper's diaries, currently on display at Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Credit Stephanie Guyer-Stevens

“This is an extraordinary gift to Cape Cod—not just PAAM, but Cape Cod,” McCarthy said, “because so many of the sketches are of Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and some of Provincetown. Having them here justifies what an important piece of American artistry we represent, and what this [collection] represents.”

The exhibit fills two rooms, with sketches on the walls and diaries in glass cases. It’s easy to spend an hour or more lost in the world of Edward Hopper’s work against the backdrop of the intimate details of the Hoppers’ personal life. 

“I can describe this as best I can,” McCarthy said, “but my only advice is to just get down here and see them, because they’re just spectacular. They really are.”

The exhibit, “Edward and Josephine Hopper from the Permanent Collection,” is at the Provincetown Art Association at Museum. It runs through April first.