Edward Hopper's Nighthawks

Nighthawks (1942). The Art Institute of Chicago.

When Edward Hopper [wiki] set out to depict New York City on canvas, he didn't look to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. He didn't focus on Central Park or Times Square. Instead, he found his inspiration in the ordinary - an anonymous diner on an inconspicuous street in Greenwich Village. But that was Hopper. Unaffected by fantastic vistas, he sought out the mundane - be it in office buildings or shop windows - to highlight the extraordinary. Who knew an image of nighttime New Yorkers hunched over their coffee would capture the mood of the city better than any breathtaking skyline ever could? [Image Credit: Rétropesctive d'Edward Hopper]

The Art of the Matter

NO WAY OUT: Look closely; there's no entrance to this diner. We as observers are shut out, and the figures are trapped within. The only door looks to be a service exit to the kitchen, so the only figure who can escape is the busboy, who is separated from the diners not only by the counter, but also by his white-clothed innocence and youth.

IT MOVES IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS: Hopper used angles to bring movement to his paintings. Notice the intersecting lines in "Nighthawks." The base of the diner is angled to intersect with the angle of the street and the verticals of the window frames. Look at it another way, and the diner forms a wedge that's like the bow of a ship running into the solid row of shop buildings.

TAKE MY WIFE, PLEASE: Hopper used his wife, artist Jo Nivison, as the model for most of his female figures, including the woman in "Nighthawks." But Hopper wasn't interested in making his figures seem individualistic. Rather, he refrained from giving them unique features, as to increase their anonymity.

SHEDDING SOME LIGHT: The bright light in the diner has the yellowish cast of fluorescent bulbs. Being artificial light, it changes the woman's skin tone and reflects harshly off the silver of the coffee urns.

Edward Hopper was born on July 22, 1882, in Nyack, N.Y., a small town on the Hudson River. An awkward and lanky adolescent (eventually topping off at 6'4"), Hopper was the quiet loner type. Fortunately, his interest in art coaxed him out of his shell enough to pursue magazine illustration at the New York School of Art. There, Hopper worked under the artist Robert Henri, one of the leading painters in the artistic movement known as the Ashcan School - a form of realism that emphasized the documentation of everyday life in the big city. And as "Nighthawks" clearly illustrates, Hopper retained Henri's emphasis on urban scenes throughout his career.

Further inspiration came after Hopper's formal education was behind him. Like most young artists, he felt the draw of Europe, making several trips to Paris during his 20s. At the time, France was abuzz with movements like Fauvism and Cubism, but Hopper took an intense interest in the more old-fashioned Impressionism. Specifically, he was fascinated by their treatment of light, which left an indelible print on his life as an artist.

Hopper returned to the United States, but his artistic success was more than a little slow in coming. For years, he supported himself by illustrating for advertising agencies, a job he loathed. In fact, Hopper was known to walk around the block of the office several times before being able to force himself inside.

It wasn't until the mid-1920s, when Hopper was in his 40s, that he began to gain enough recognition to allow him to pursue art full time. So perhaps it's no coincidence that it was also around this time, in 1924, that Hopper married fellow artist Josephine Nivison. While Jo's diaries reveal their relationship to be complicated and contentious, the two were inseparable. They adopted an existence that was simple, bordering on sparse - but it was a lifestyle that surrounded Hopper with artistic inspiration. In the winter, the couple lived in a fourth-floor studio in Greenwich Village's Washington Square, while their summers were spent in a scantily furnished cottage on Cape Cod. Hopper's two major artistic subjects? The city and the seaside.

As is the case with all of his work, Hopper's country paintings are characterized by their treatment of light. In "The Lighthouse at Two Lights" (1929), for example, the mid-morning rays hitting the building's white cylinder are so bright, the lighthouse seems to glow. But Hopper's paintings are also characterized by the mood of intense isolation they convey. "House by the Railroad" (1925) shows a lone Victorian mansion cut off at its base by the slashing horizontal line of railroad tracks. While the side of the house is brightly lit, the front is ominously dark. In fact, the painting is said to have inspired Alfred Hitchcock, who used it as the model for the Bates Hotel in "Psycho."

The Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

House by the Railroad (1925). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Hopper's other great subject was the city. And while his trademarks - the use of light and the sense of isolation - are still very much present in these pieces, they take on a different significance. For instance, windows play a major role in his city paintings, either by admitting or casting out light. Hopper's New York is a middle-class world of offices and hotel lobbies, so subjects are often looking out windows, or else the scene is glimpsed through them. The characters in Hopper's city paintings also exude loneliness; even when two or more people are together, they don't interact.

Office at Night (1940). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

But perhaps the most intriguing element of Hopper's art is its interactive element. Hopper rejected storytelling in his work, so there is never a narrative. Consider "Office at Night" (1940). A man at a desk peers at a sheet of paper, while a woman stands before a file cabinet. What are they doing? Preparing for a meeting? Committing a crime? Is the scene innocent or sinister? There are no answers. But it's this sense of mystery that caused many observers to take away a disquieted feel from the urban paintings. It's also why film noir movies of the 1950s used Hopper-inspired settings and camera angles to convey an atmosphere of corruption.

Then there's Hopper's masterpiece, "Nighthawks" (1942), which contains all of his signature elements: the treatment of light, the feeling of loneliness, and the lack of narrative. The brightly lit diner (based on a real restaurant in Greenwich Village, which has since been destroyed) pours light onto the empty street. The four characters inside seem exposed and vulnerable, as though they're living in a fishbowl. One man hunches over his coffee with his back to the viewer, while a man and woman sit together, their hands touching but their eyes not meeting. The fresh-faced busboy in his white cap seems to be speaking, but the patrons pay no attention. The woman peers at an unidentifiable scrap of paper. Is it a ticket? Or folded money? Are the man and woman a couple? Are they tired from a night out, or contemplating a crime? It's tempting to make up a story about the scene, but Hopper gives us few clues.

In Hopper's elder years, the austerity of his work increased, and several of his later paintings contained almost nothing but light and geometry. In "Sun in an Empty Room" (1963), for example, blocks of light from an open window fall across a bare wall. Hopper continued to paint until 1965, when illness finally forced him to put down his brushes. He died on May 15, 1967, in the Washington Square studio where he had lived for more than 50 years.

Sun in an Empty Room (1963). Private Collection.

When gauging his impact on the world, it can't really be said that Hopper strongly influenced his contemporaries. After all, he ignored most of the mid-century art movements, and in turn, their adherents ignored him. Yet, even though Hopper rejected the abstract art that surrounded him and stayed outside the modern mainstream, his work had a sense of geometry that abstract painters appreciated, though it remained uniquely individual to Hopper. In addition, founding an art movement means commenting on your work and giving it meaning - things Hopper was completely opposed to. Even the endless discussion of isolation in his work annoyed him. "The loneliness thing is overdone," he once said. Rather, Hopper always claimed his goals were purely artistic: "What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house."

The article above, written by Elizabeth Lunday, is reprinted with permission from mental_floss magazine (Nov - Dec 2006 issue).

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I had the opportunity to see a retrospective of Hopper's work at the Tate Modern while in London during summer of 2004. Like most paintings, any photo or reproduction just does.not do any justice. The man is meticulous, his work is engrossing. Oh, and 'nighthawks' is much smaller than I imagined it would be.
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