Every summer for 37 years, the American artist Edward Hopper would come to a windswept, isolated village in Cape Cod to gaze out over the heaths and across the bay, to draw inspiration from the stillness and from the isolation.
The view that he drank in, and which features in several of his most important works, has remained largely unchanged to this day, 40 years after his death.
Locals – the 2,125 residents of Truro, Massachusetts – call it the Hopper Landscape, and the whitewashed house that the artist had built atop a hillside is preserved today by family friends who still site his old easel in the window.
But that view is suddenly under threat from a brash new landowner with ambitious building plans, and the tranquility of the area has been shattered by a nasty planning battle.
The furore began when Donald and Andrea Kline, spent $6.75m (£3.4m) on a tract of land in the northern part of the Hopper Landscape earlier this year. Outraged residents say that a mansion of 6.500 square feet being planned on a hillside, in direct site of Hopper's old house, will blot the landscape and obscure the cottages that the artist painted. Worse, with reflecting pools, a vast garage and room for a wine cellar, they predict the property is going to be terribly gauche.
"It can only be a monument to themselves," one neighbour, Joan Holt, told The Boston Globe. "It says it's not about the neighbourhood and what it's always been and what it's always meant to be. All it says is, 'Look at the money I have'." The debate has spilled out beyond the usual circles of nimbyist planning disputes because it raises wider questions on the extent to which society should be protecting the landscapes that have inspired artistic works.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, of The New York Times's august editorial board, weighed in to argue that the history of art is the history of vanished or altered landscapes. "The landscape Hopper saw, as an artist, is already protected," he wrote. "It exists only in his paintings, nowhere else."
The Klines say they have followed all environmental and planning rules, and will even put parts of the waterfront into a conservation trust. They also dispute that the site of the house is directly in the view that Hopper painted.
There is nothing, the couple's lawyer said at a testy public meeting last week, that the Cape Cod land use commission can do to prevent the development.
Nonetheless, feeling the pressure from a 300-strong petition, the commission did vote to examine the development – an unprecedented ruling – and opponents believe that they can still protect an important view.
It was Hopper's knack of capturing a sense of isolation and loneliness in his paintings that earned him his pre-eminence in the history of 20th century American art. It was a sense he found both in urban settings – in paintings such as his most famous, Nighthawks, where isolated figures sit around the bar of a harshly lit diner – and in the hills, lighthouses and isolated buildings of rural settings, particularly around Cape Cod.
While he lived and worked mostly in New York City, Hopper treasured the annual escape to Truro and to the tiny house that he built in 1934.
The Truro Historical Commission, which has been heading the campaign against the Klines' plans, hopes that the couple will be forced to consider scaled down plans that have less of an impact on the view, or can at least be prevailed upon to resite the development away from the high-point of their property. The chairman of the Cape Cod Commission, though, appeared reluctant to intervene, saying its review would be speedy. He predicted that the battle to protect the Hopper Landscape might ultimately be decided by the courts.Reuse content