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The Blind Boy (c. 1925, oil on canvas)

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September 12, 2019
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort St, New York NY 10014
whitney.org

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Whitney Museum of American Art Announces Gift of Edward Hopper Works From Private Collection

The Whitney Museum of American Art is pleased to announce a generous gift from the estate of Mary Boffin-Graves, long regarded as one of the most impressive small private collections of American paintings and works on paper from the late-19th and 20th centuries. The Boffin-Graves gift includes fifteen paintings and over thirty sketches and etchings by the American artist Edward Hopper, most of which have never before been on public display. Of particular interest to scholars is the unfinished and untitled portrait that has come to be known as “The White-Eyed Boy,” or more commonly, “The Blind Boy,” thought to be abandoned some time around the completion House By the Railroad (1925) due to preparatory sketches of the latter painting on the former’s backing canvas. This portrait further expands the cast of urban characters for which Hopper is so well-known, and illuminates a new sensibility of his portraiture beyond American symbolism. The Boffin-Graves collection will be overseen by Katya Dunn, senior curator. An exhibition of the new Hopper works is being planned for the autumn of 2020.

About Mary Boffin-Graves: Mary Boffin-Graves, née Boffin, was born in 1916 to Sarah and Theodore Boffin, of Syracuse, New York. Theodore was a Vice-President in the New York Central Lines, following his own family’s tradition of involvement in the ironworking and railroad industries. Mary’s mother was an artist, and little is known about her before her marriage to Theodore in 1914. It was, however, her mother’s commitment to the arts that inspired Mary’s own patronage of several important New York institutions, including a relationship with the Whitney nearly from its inception in 1930. She attending private schooling until university, where she studied Art History at Barnard College, graduating in 1937. Soon afterward, she met Josephine Verstille Hopper at an event at the New York School of Art and Design, who in turn introduced Mary to her husband, Edward Hopper. The work of both the Hoppers would make up the bulk of Mary’s personal art collection, and it is rumored that it was at Mary’s urging that Josephine bequeathed the entirety of her oeuvre to the Whitney upon her death in 1968.

Mary married Thornhill Graves, a family friend of the Hoppers, in 1956. For the time, a woman of 40 with a man nearly two decades her junior was still vaguely scandalous, but non-conformity would continue to define many aspects of Mary’s life, as it had previously. Defying most of the postwar upper-crust New York City set, Mary and Thornhill bought a large townhouse in Brooklyn Heights, where they lived with their extensive art collection, seven cats, and an inventive rooftop owl aviary, for the next sixty years. Mary Boffin-Graves passed away in 2017, at the age of 101.

About The Whitney: The Whitney Museum of American Art, founded in 1930 by the artist and philanthropist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942), houses the foremost collection of American art from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Mrs. Whitney, an early and ardent supporter of modern American art, nurtured groundbreaking artists at a time when audiences were still largely preoccupied with the Old Masters. From her vision arose the Whitney Museum of American Art, which has been championing the most innovative art of the United States for more than eighty years. The core of the Whitney’s mission is to collect, preserve, interpret, and exhibit American art of our time and serve a wide variety of audiences in celebration of the complexity and diversity of art and culture in the United States. Through this mission and a steadfast commitment to artists themselves, the Whitney has long been a powerful force in support of modern and contemporary art and continues to help define what is innovative and influential in American art today.

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From: lparnell@ilvermorny.owlnet.wedu
To: kdunn@whitney.org
Subject: Re: Whitney Announcement of Boffin-Graves Gift

Katya,

Congratulations! A pleasure to see this estate handled by such capable hands. Looking forward to the show next year.

My best,

Lovett

Lovett Parnell
Rothschild Family Curator of Paintings and Drawings
Ilvermorny Museum of Wizarding Art
Ilvermorny MA
Owlnet code: 61982

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From: kdunn@whitney.org
To: lparnell@ilvermorny.owlnet.wedu
Subject: Re: Whitney Announcement of Boffin-Graves Gift

Hi Lovett,

Thank you. I’m so glad you got in touch. There are several sketches and two portraits in the collection that the B-G estate records indicate might be of particular interest to you. We’re still debating their appropriateness for public viewing, and would be grateful for your input. Would you like to arrange a viewing?

Best,

Katya

Katya Dunn
Senior Curator
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort St
New York, NY 10014

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From: lparnell@ilvermorny.owlnet.wedu
To: kdunn@whitney.org
Subject: Re: Whitney Announcement of Boffin-Graves Gift

Katya,

I would be delighted. I’ll find a telefonny this afternoon and give you a ring to find a time next week. Do you still have that lovely fireplace in your office? I believe I can wrangle a temporary Floo.

Cheers,

Lovett

Lovett Parnell
Rothschild Family Curator of Paintings and Drawings
Ilvermorny Museum of Wizarding Art
Ilvermorny MA
Owlnet code: 61982

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From: kdunn@whitney.org
To: lparnell@ilvermorny.owlnet.wedu
Subject: Re: Whitney Announcement of Boffin-Graves Gift

Lovett, you’re thinking of the Frick.

Also: *telephone.

Katya Dunn
Senior Curator
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort St
New York, NY 10014

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From: lparnell@ilvermorny.owlnet.wedu
To: kdunn@whitney.org
Subject: Re: Whitney Announcement of Boffin-Graves Gift

Ah, I’ll use the door, then.

Chat soon!

Lovett Parnell
Rothschild Family Curator of Paintings and Drawings
Ilvermorny Museum of Wizarding Art
Ilvermorny MA
Owlnet code: 61982

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“I’ll never understand how easily you took to that.”

He looks up from where he is poking deliberately at the screen of his tablet with both fingers. “The future is still waiting for you, Miranda,” he says, grandly. “It judges not even the latecomer.”

She crosses from the doorway to the teachers’ lounge; sits across him in the other plush armchair, takes a sip of her coffee. “I confiscated another six of those tablets just last week.”

“And there they are, gathering dust in your desk drawer. They’d be better off with your students, you know.”

“Lovett.” She rolls her eyes. “Not if they’re sifting through the owlnet instead of paying attention to the annunciation of their charms.”

“I’ll begrudge you that,” he says. He is sympathetic. It is a shameful secret that only two weeks ago he had nearly forgotten to sleep for three days in favor of a mind-numbing but endlessly diverting application called Angry Nifflers. “But it’s still useful. For example—”

“Here we go.”

For example. I’ve just had the most fascinating exchange with a Muggle curator in New York. Do you know she’s just come into ownership of a collection of Edward Hopper works from the Boffin-Graves family?”

“Graves, not the—”

“The very same.”

“Oh my.”

“Exactly.” He points at the tablet in his lap. “Were it not for this, we’d never be privy to such an exciting opportunity for Magical-Muggle art historical relations!”

“Lovett, you’re a dork.” She says it very seriously, as though he needs to be reminded.

“And Hopper. Such a fascinating figure—truly liminal. D’you know most of us don’t even nowadays realize he was a wizard? Such a shame, he did so little enchanted painting. He always thought it more of a challenge to hide the movement in the corner of one’s eye, you see?”

“I am a philistine when it comes to the owlnet and art both, I’m afraid.”

“And there’s—” he opens his tablet again, scrolling. “Look, the Graves collection is marvelous. Known especially for Hopper’s live works, which is why it’s been so secretive for so long, of course. But it has this one portrait, The Blind Boy, the Muggles call it. Let me find you a picture, if I can. It’s this beautiful little—ah, here it is.”

He hands her the tablet. The little image of the painting stares up at her. The dark, streaky background, the severe, pale face with purple swipes of shadow under the eyes, over the cheekbones. The high collar painted in a starchy white with thick brushstrokes. The funny stoop of the shoulders bleeding into the black behind. The little pink smudge of a scar on the left cheek. The awkward tilt of the jaw. The strange, raw white spaces in the middle of the face, like an open wound.

“They also think it’s unfinished. Because of the eyes, you see?”

“Is it?”

“I don’t think so. But I’ve never seen it in person.”

“Who is he?”

“We don’t know. Such an interesting face, though, don’t you think?”

“He looks so sad.”

“Mm.”

She hands the tablet back.

“Oof. Just gave me the shivers, for some reason.”

He smiles at the image. Taps it once with the pad of his finger, like it is a friend. “Not such a philistine after all, then.”

--

From: lparnell@ilvermorny.owlnet.wedu
To: kdunn@whitney.org
Subject: Boffin-Graves collection notes

Dear Katya,

Thank you again for such a lovely meeting yesterday. It was a pleasure to spend so much time with the Hopper works, and to hear your thoughts. Sorry again about the incident with the water fountain. I should know better than to go about attempting amateur plumbing—water charms were never my strong suit.

I’m including my notes on the flagged enchanted B-G Hopper works here, for your posterity:

The Blind Boy: I have my doubts about this work’s enchantment, still. It appears safe to me for public Muggle display, although I cannot promise that it will not inspire some sort of discomfort or other possible negative feeling in the viewer. This is the kind of magic that belongs to all Muggle art, though, and as such only Hopper can be held responsible (regardless of his blood status). For my part, I did not see it move.

W/R/T this painting’s status as complete, and also its date: After viewing this work in person now, I cannot say whether I know if Hopper abandoned it or simply considered the raw canvas where the eyes should be as the only possible option for this portrait. I will admit to having some conviction previously: I thought certainly that even Mary B-G would never convince Hopper to part with a work he was not happy with, although perhaps I have both underestimated Mary’s power of persuasion, and overestimated Edward’s confidence. I do not know for certain. There is much about this painting that is so much stranger in person, outside of the identifiable brushwork and the cropping: how big the eyes are, in part—very unusual for his portraiture. How the untouched canvas where the eyes should be seems to oscillate between some kind of wildly modernist, conscious gesture and the simple accident of a failed attempt to capture something that escapes the brush.

I agree that this painting cannot possibly be older than 1925. Regardless of the verso sketches that are undoubtedly studies for House by the Railroad, Hopper’s hand is so much more visibly indebted to William Merritt Chase than his work from the 1930s onward, especially visible in his working of the fabric of the boy’s somewhat ill-fitting suit jacket and the use of violet-pink for shading in the face.

(An interesting side note: did you know that Merritt Chase also took over Hopper’s magical instruction during his time at the New York School of Art and Design? Hopper did not attend our fair Ilvermorny as his parents were just a little too Baptist to entertain boarding school; as such his charm and transfiguration work left a great deal to be desired. I can send you a wonderful short biographical article on the from Magical Art History Bulletin from 2005, if you are interested. I do not know how to send documents over the owlnet yet, but I'm sure I can find an intelligent student to help me.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’m convinced more than ever that the Blind Boy and the boy in the sketch with Hopper’s inscription “Credence, age 19” are the same person (see below for more), despite the several objections from your colleague. Although I will admit that I should maybe not have called him a Muggle in a tone that implied it was a four-letter word.

Sketch 08.1256.19: This wonderful little black chalk drawing seems to me to be from life, although I know there is still some disagreement as to Hopper’s working style. Because of the way Hopper has clearly also been working through experiments with perspective lines and urban architecture on the same page, I would chance an interpretation that this is not necessarily preparatory for some lost work, but rather him capturing various elements of the city and its denizens as general practice and exploration of themes.

To the major sticking point: I suppose the boy’s face is not entirely clear. The black chalk smudging renders any kind of facial comparison to The Blind Boy a little of a moot point, but the posture is to me unmistakeable. The boy here, who Hopper has helpfully (if frustratingly) labeled “Credence, age 19,” on the lower right hand corner, has the same stoop in his shoulders as the painting, the same dip of his neck, and seems to carry himself with the same chilling sense of some kind of predatory force at his back. It is so unusual for Hopper to be so unambiguous, so completely upfront about the potential terrors of urban life rather than gesture more implicitly to the sadness of alienation. I cannot help but think this is a specific person, and that it is the same young man in the painting.

I would argue further the smudging of the boy’s face is also purposeful, I think, and not incidental or an attempt at erasure. Hopper appears to have attempted enchantment with it, for some reason. If you pretend as though you are not looking directly at it, the smudging on the sketch flickers, like it is made of some kind of curling smoke, or thick mist, pulsing like it is caught in a whip of wind. Quite cheeky.

(The inscription itself brings up a hippogriff’s weight of questions: for any artist like Hopper who avoided specificity in portraiture/figural painting so long—with the exception of Josephine for his usual model—why the gesture to it here? If “Credence” is indeed the same boy in The Blind Boy painting, why on earth the repeat interest? The enchantment on the sketch makes me believe this is not a Muggle subject, but that in and of itself is its own mystery. Hopper rarely, if ever, painted Magical subjects due to the pre-war secrecy laws, and perhaps more likely due some own internalized discomfort with his liminal status—the biographical article I mentioned from MAHB goes into this in some depth, by the way. Is “Credence” a real Wizarding young man of New York? A symbol? A cipher for the encroaching dark we know historically was just around the corner? I am getting ahead of myself, I suppose, but isn’t that how all interesting theories are formed!)

Untitled couples portrait, unfinished, 08.3861.19: What an unbelievable find, Katya! I cannot express enough how sorry I am for the truly terrible noise I made when I saw it. (I fear any remaining academic credentials I may have are in peril, quite honestly.)

I am distraught at the omission of this painting from the catalogue raisonne, if only for the inevitable debates over authenticity that will erupt around it, but how could one be in doubt! It’s clearly a much later work than The Blind Boy—I would hazard something closer to Nighthawks or Hotel Lobby, due to the oscillation between the claustrophobia of the interior space and the positioning of the viewer just from the outside. Also, his handling of light (the natural dusk warring with the artificial fluorescence) is far defter and more acutely emotional. (Not to mention the choice of a diner for the setting!)

For someone who once said “Maybe I am not very human,” Hopper here has articulated something so deeply intimate between the two figures. Unusual for him and this time period, yes, when so much of his work seemed to explore the spaces of separation and alienation between human beings (I am thinking of Room in New York, Automat, Night Windows), but there is something of Chop Suey in this painting: two figures at a table in a restaurant, the light and shadow playing on their faces, apparently not speaking to one another but engaged in some kind of exchange nonetheless. The way that the older man on the right appears to be watching the younger on the left, almost out of the side of his eye: it conveys such a strange combination of protectiveness and trepidation. He has an air of confidence about him, to be sure, but it seems softened, in this moment. (Something familiar in his face, too. I shall have to dig deeper on this one.) The single cup of coffee in front of the younger man, seemingly untouched: it’s so sad, somehow, and yet has a gesture of comfort. Watching them through the window of the diner, as Hopper has us positioned—Merlin’s Beard, if I were a passerby on the street I would feel compelled to stop and watch them, too.

I am struck again by the little stoop in the younger man’s shoulders. His posture and his radiance of dislocation. Perhaps I am reaching, but the lack of provenance for this painting coupled with the rather strange manner of dress of both the men, and the doubtless enchantment on this work (more on that below), makes me think that this is another in a series of works of this “Credence” figure—the Blind Boy again. Can you not see the connection? His face is so much clearer here, although the eyes are articulated to be sure; I think it would be impossible not to see some facial similarity between our blind boy and this young man in the diner with the single cup of coffee. If my shaky attempts at connoisseurship hold up, it would explain the longer hair and the sharper jaw—nearly ten years or more after the portrait and the sketch.

The more I transcribe my notes to you, Katya, the more convinced I am that this is a Magical subject. It would explain Mary Boffin-Graves’ reticence to publish the work, and also perhaps begin to open up onto a small tradition of previously unexplored group of subjects that Hopper explored in New York City. I do not express to be a proper historian, but I do remember enough from my History of Magic courses to know that in this period of time our community was small, and fearful, and plagued with the encroaching terror of our own eventual war. It would hold that Hopper himself perhaps limited his Magical subjects, moved only to paint them when something intensely personal or significant grabbed onto him and would not let him go.

The enchantment charm on this painting is enough to make me believe in this line of reasoning. True to Hopper’s form, the movement is minimal, and peripheral. I would entreat you not to let this stop you from allowing this magnificent and beautiful work to be on public display.

I have more to say, I’m afraid, but this message is already as long as a murtlap tail. I’m beginning to develop what I believe might be some truly ludicrous theories, but I fear the historical foundation of them may be too complicated to explain to you here. Got some research to do. May have to keep you in suspense for a little while.

Ta-ta,

Lovett Parnell
Rothschild Family Curator of Paintings and Drawings
Ilvermorny Museum of Wizarding Art
Ilvermorny MA
Owlnet code: 61982

--

They hang together, the next year. On the left the sketch, they have called it Credence, age 19 after the inscription. In the center, the portrait that they title The Blind Boy (Credence). And on the right they hang the portrait of the couple in the diner at dusk with the single cup of black coffee. They call this one Untitled, because it is, but they also call it “coffee cup,” or “the two men,” or “dusk at the diner,” because it is also all of these things too. (Ms Katya Dunn will come to think of it privately as, “The Lovers in a Time of War,” but she will not admit to it because it is unsubstantiated and also, she thinks sometimes, when she pauses in front of it when the galleries are closed and the lights are low, a little too pretentious for the softness of the thing.)

They hang together, because they are of a set. This will be argued and proven, in the end. There are some archival photographs found by Mr Lovett Parnell but unusable for exhibition for the obvious reasons that connect the dots, one-to-one-to-one-to-one, and all the way back to the Boffins and the Graveses and the Hoppers and also perhaps to the thing preying on the blind boy’s back, to the thing preying on New York City, to the reason that he left the canvas raw where the eyes should be.

They hang together and if you stand in front of them and pretend that you are not looking at them closely—perhaps you are looking at the woman standing at the window and watching the barges on the Hudson go by, or perhaps you are glancing down at your phone, or perhaps you are distracted by a thought about what to have for lunch or will you go and get an ice-cream later from the Mr Softee truck you saw outside the steps of the museum when you came in—if you pretend that you are not looking at them closely they will live, a little. The smudge on the sketch will unfurl and shudder at you and make you want to blink away the sudden cold feeling you have on the back of your neck. The black flatness of the background of The Blind Boy will seem to shift and deepen, as if it will reach out and swallow the figure whole and maybe pull you inside also with him. And the older man, the one on the right in the diner booth at dusk, you might imagine that you see him reach out a hand across the table and take with his fingers the palm of his younger companion, and that they will look at each other for a moment, only each other, ignoring even you.