New Conservation Discoveries: Edward Hopper’s “The Long Leg”

Posted on Tue., Jan. 16, 2024 by Christina M. O’Connell and Kevin Durkin
Expand image A microscope light illuminates a section of a painting.

Christina M. O’Connell, the Mary Ann and John Sturgeon Senior Paintings Conservator at The Huntington, examines Edward Hopper’s The Long Leg under a microscope. Recent conservation work has led to new discoveries about Hopper’s materials, and an old mystery about the painting has finally been solved. | © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Christina M. O’Connell, the Mary Ann and John Sturgeon Senior Paintings Conservator at The Huntington, has been working to conserve Edward Hopper’s The Long Leg. In this painting, Hopper depicts a lone sailboat slipping across the water near the Long Point Light at Provincetown, Massachusetts.

O’Connell’s conservation plan for this iconic painting has developed over time into a process of discovery. Details from Hopper’s ledger books, material analysis, and her own observations have shed light on the condition of the painting and on who, if anyone, is at the boat’s helm.

Kevin Durkin, editor of Verso, recently visited O’Connell in The Huntington’s conservation lab to view The Long Leg under a microscope and learn more about her project.

Durkin: Why is The Long Leg in the conservation lab?

O’Connell: I started the examination and treatment of Hopper’s painting to address areas of flaking paint on its surface. I wanted to put it under my microscope to see what was going on, and when I did, I could see that the flaking was much more extensive than I had originally thought. I also found that, where water was depicted, there were some areas of past damage that had been covered by previous restorations. This indicated to me that the flaking had been happening for a long time and that the underlying cause needed to be investigated.

Expand image A close-up photo revealing a painting’s surface texture.

This image, with the lighting set at an angle to emphasize the surface texture, shows how areas of the original paint were flaking off the painting’s surface. | © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Durkin: What steps did you take to investigate the painting further?

O’Connell: I used a variety of methods to examine the painting. One of the simplest ways to study and document the surface of a painting is with raking light—that’s when we shine a light at a really extreme side angle. By lighting the painting in this way, I can observe details about the surface texture, including areas where the paint is flaking. I use photos taken with raking light to document the condition of a painting before I start any treatment.

I also carried out cross-section microscopy to get an even closer view of the paint layers. I removed a tiny fragment of paint from an area of the water at the edge of previous damage. The paint fragment was mounted in resin and sanded from the side to reveal all the layers of paint. Hopper applied eight or more layers as he mapped out the waves. The fractures running through the layers of paint indicated to me that the damage and flaking were quite extensive, occurring even between the layers.

Expand image A blue paint sample with specks of light and dark blues and whites.

Microscope analysis of tiny paint samples, like this one taken from the edge of a damaged area depicting water, shows how the many layers of paint were flaking apart. | © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Durkin: Did you have past records about the painting to consult?

O’Connell: Unfortunately, there is nothing in our files about the painting’s conservation history, but I knew that Hopper recorded information about his works in ledger books housed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Hopper’s ledger books, which I consulted remotely during the pandemic, contain sketches and key information about his paintings. In the entry for The Long Leg in the second ledger book—there are five in total—Hopper recorded that he’d completed the painting in November 1935 and listed some of the materials he used, including zinc white. I wondered if the presence of zinc white pigment contributed to the flaking. In recent decades, conservators and conservation scientists have been studying how pigments and oil binders can interact to form metal soaps in paint. We have since conducted extensive scientific analyses of The Long Leg, the results of which will eventually be published. I can share that we do have evidence of zinc soaps on The Long Leg, and this knowledge will guide my treatment decisions.

Expand image A section of a painting that shows blue ocean water with a shore of land in the background.

This passage in the lower left quadrant of the painting shows an area where some of the previous overpaints have been removed, making past damage visible. | © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Durkin: What has surprised you most as you’ve worked on the painting’s conservation?

O’Connell: I love having the opportunity and time to look at the surface of paintings in great detail. Sometimes this means I make observations that have been previously overlooked. One of the most exciting discoveries was finding a person on the boat. Hopper used a few strokes of paint to define a figure wearing a dark blue shirt and white pants. I think the figure may have been overlooked in the past because we don’t expect Hopper to paint figures in such an abstract and gestural way. But considering how much maneuvering is required to sail a boat in a strong wind, it makes sense that someone is at the helm.

I found other examples where Hopper used a few marks to define the form of a person, including Study for Yawl Riding a Swell from 1935 [the same year Hopper completed The Long Leg] in the Whitney’s collection. In that sketch, the tiny figure on the boat in the background is sketched out in a pose similar to the figure's pose in The Long Leg.

Expand image A close-up photo of a painting with strokes of blue, brown, and white.

The boat isn’t sailing by itself! After removing cloudy varnishes, O’Connell had a better view of the details in the composition. In this detail, she discovered a small, abstract figure piloting the boat. | © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Durkin: What is gained through this type of research?

O’Connell: I think this is a great example of how art historical investigation and scientific analysis can be paired to gain a better understanding of artworks. I now know more about the mechanisms of deterioration that have caused the flaking paint and can map out the next steps of treatment so that the painting can be stabilized and look better. There are still many hours of treatment ahead, but when this project is completed, we will have vital information to share with conservators, conservation scientists, and art historians. And when The Long Leg returns to the art gallery [estimated to be in spring 2024], visitors will be able to see the sailor for themselves.

You can learn more about Hopper’s works and how he recorded them in Edward Hopper: Paintings & Ledger Book Drawings (Schirmer/Mosel, 2012).

Christina M. O’Connell is the Mary Ann and John Sturgeon Senior Paintings Conservator at The Huntington.

Kevin Durkin is the editor of Verso and the managing editor in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.