Thursday, October 20, 2005
For 54 years, from 1913 to his death in 1967, Edward Hopper’s primary residence was a 3rd floor studio apartment in Greenwich Village. He was undoubtedly enamored with New York City, and his paintings are infused with imagery produced by keen observation of his surroundings: diners, office interiors, bridges, railway cars, restaurants, and street scenes.
Hopper seemed to paint in flourishes and then suffer idly for extensive periods between creative outbursts. His primary distractive measures during the fallow periods were drinking coffee in a nearby Automat and doing word puzzles in the Evening Sun. Thankfully, on occasion Hopper must have ventured beyond reading the paper and drinking coffee to kill the time since one of his bouts of “painter’s block” was spent attending 6-day bicycle races in Madison Square Garden, ultimately resulting in the work French Six-day Bicycle Rider. Says biographer Gail Levin:
“February  was fallow, but on March 5 he began French Six-day Bicycle Rider. The subject had been simmering since December of 1935 when Jo [Hopper’s wife] complained to Marion [Hopper’s sister] that Edward was going repeatedly to the bicycle races at Madison Square Garden, just to see the same scene over and over again. She was annoyed at the forty-cent tickets he indulged in, when, as she saw it, nothing came of it. At that time, he was stuck and unable to paint and she thought they could take a trip, perhaps to New Orleans, so he could work once again. It was one of the occasions when she simply misunderstood the often lengthy gestation periods that Hopper’s creative process required. Very little of Hopper’s time was actually spent painting.”
In later letters, Hopper described the painting’s subject matter:
“I was unable to remember the name of the rider, only that he was young and dark and quite French in appearance. I did not attempt an accurate portrait, but it resembles him in a general way. He was I think a member of one of the last French teams to win a race at Madison Square Garden. He is supposed to be resting during the sprints while his team mate is on the track or at the time when `The Garden’ is full in the afternoon or evening, when both members of a team are on full alert to see that no laps are stolen from them.”
Based on Hopper’s recollections and the painting itself, the rider depicted is very likely Frenchman Alfred Letourner, one of the era’s great six day champions. He won at Madison Square Garden on six occasions, and as Hopper opined, Letourner was indeed the last Frenchman to win at the Garden. The vivid red jersey also points to Letourner, whose customary jersey choice generated his nickname: “Le Diable Rouge”. While Letourner cemented his reputation as one of track cycling’s greats through years of success on European and American velodromes, he is perhaps best remembered for breaking the paced bicycle speed record in 1941. Letourner was the last person to achieve the record on a regular track bike (albeit with a gigantic, custom chain ring and a 6t cog on the rear wheel for one monster gear). He blazed to 108.92mph Breaking Away-style: drafting a race car on a public highway in Bakersfield, CA. That certainly took nerves of steel.
The December 1935 six-day race at Madison Square Garden witnessed by Hopper was a particularly raucous affair, rife with drama both on and off the track. The race exploded from the blast of celebrity starter Pat O’Brien’s pistol shot and set a new record for the most distance covered in the first hour of a six-day race (a shade under 28 miles). Crashes were plentiful as well, and ultimately about half of the participants were forced to retire due to injuries. In addition to on the track excitement, the undertones of Nazi Germany were felt at the Garden. Two German teams were entered, and the promoter John Chapman refused to let the Nazi swastika flag fly over their bunks. The German cyclists were forced to use the recently retired German national flag (the Norddeutscher-Bund flag used since 1867, forbidden by the Nazis in 1935) instead so as not to offend the audience. Ex-heavyweight world champion boxer Max Schmeling also made a public appearance in the infield, as he was friends with one of the Germans teams (Adolf Schoen and Eric Putzfield) and recently sailed to New York to attend a Joe Louis title bout. Louis fought (and knocked out) Basque challenger Paulino Uzcudun at the Garden about 1 week after the six-day race concluded. A German team (six-day legends Heinz Vopel and Gustav Kilian, who in this particular event became the first German team to triumph in a MSG 6-day race) emerged victorious, with Letourner and partner Paul Broccardo finishing third.
French Six-day Bicycle Rider was purchased in 1937 from the Frank K M. Rehn Gallery in New York City, Hopper’s primary middle-man to the buying public, by the husband and wife screenwriting team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. The duo amassed quite an enviable art collection in their Bel Air residence, even by Hollywood standards, and considered their 2 Hopper oils, French Six-day Bicycle Rider and A Woman in the Sun, the prize items. The Hacketts were unquestionably well acquainted with Hopper’s work since Frances Goodrich’s brother was the art historian/Whitney Museum of Art curator and director Lloyd Goodrich, an early champion and lifelong friend of Edward Hopper. The painting remained in the Hackett’s private collection from 1937-1995, until the death of Albert Hackett. During their ownership, they allowed the painting to be displayed in 9 public exhibitions (primarily at the Whitney, but also notably for a 1965 exhibition of sport related paintings at the location of its genesis: Madison Square Garden). Why did Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett buy the painting? I’ve wondered if the purchase was more related to the prestige of owning an Edward Hopper painting with the subject matter being of a more secondary issue (if it was an issue at all). Interestingly, Frances Goodrich grew up in one of early 20th century America’s cycling hotbeds (Nutley, NJ) while the velodrome’s racing schedule was at its peak. Her childhood home was a mere two blocks from the Nutley Velodrome and one can speculate whether her memory of the track’s presence and prominence in Nutley played any role in the painting’s purchase.
As an aside, through my readings of Edward Hopper’s life I stumbled across the name of a man, a rather wealthy man, who was largely responsible for keeping Hopper financially solvent through the purchase of his paintings. The name struck a chord, since it turns out that this fellow, philanthropist and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, is the same man responsible for putting Cooperstown, NY on the map for reasons other than being the home of author James Fenimore Cooper. The benefactor’s name is Stephen C. Clark and in addition to his art collecting, among other things, he was instrumental in locating the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, donated the land and buildings which now comprise the Farmer’s Museum and the Fenimore Art Museum, and created the eponymously named Clark Foundation philanthropic trust. In recent years, about 3 million dollars of his family money is doled out annually via the Clark Foundation to Cooperstown-area, college-bound high school seniors for tuition assistance. The scholarships are based on merit; the better your high school record, the more money you receive. I had the good fortune to attend high school in Cooperstown and graciously applied Clark Foundation money to paying the hefty Duke University price tag. Six degrees of separation indeed regarding the largesse of Clark family cash.