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Outdoors: Shakespeare at Dusk

Edward Hopper Shakespeare at Dusk

The American artist Edward Hopper famously said, “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.”

Ironically, in spite of this belief, it seems Hopper was a great reader.

He was particularly fond of and inspired by the words of Shakespeare, and according to a number of commentaries, he was especially moved by the description of autumn in Sonnet 73.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold                                           
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

So when he created his late autumn painting of New York’s Central Park, he inserted the statue of the Bard beside the leafless trees of the city’s twilight.

The famous work is called “Shakespeare at Dusk.”

Shakespeare painted with words, and Sonnet 73 alludes to the end of life.

For the leaf of a deciduous trees, autumn is the end of life.

A leaf is extremely efficient at converting the sun’s energy into food, but it wears out after one season and is then discarded.

Leaf drop is a form of self-protection because the weight of ice and snow would cause major breakage if spent leaves were still attached to a tree's branches.

This time of year, as the length of night increases, chlorophyll production in a tree slows down, then stops.

Next, chemicals in the tree cause the layer of cells between the leaf and twig to fill up with a waxy substance that reduces the flow of water and nutrients to the leaf.

Meanwhile, cells divide rapidly making sort of a corky layer which seals off the yellow leaves, so eventually, ”none, or few do hang.”  

Shakespeare may not have known the survival value of leaf drop, and Hopper might have been thinking about old age and death, but with paint and words, both described late autumn:

When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Upon the boughs which shake against the cold.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.