Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks remains today one of the most iconic works of American Realism, with its elevation of a seemingly banal diner scene to a timeless, transcendent symbol of human experience, encompassing emotions of loneliness and alienation. In this article, Singulart examines Hopper’s long road to recognition and discusses the multitude of reasons behind Nighthawks stellar reputation.
Who was Edward Hopper?
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was an American Realist painter, renowned for his paintings of modern American life. Born in Upper Nyack, New York he grew up in a wealthy Dutch Baptist family where his interest in art was encouraged. After deciding to study art and at his parents’ insistence that he be able to make a living, he studied commercial art at the New York School of Art and Design. Over his six years of study, he was influenced by his teachers, most specifically the two artists: William Merritt Chase, who instructed him in oil painting and Robert Henri, who encouraged him to instill his work with modern spirit. He was also inspired by the works of the Impressionists, Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas.
In 1905, Hopper began a part time job as an illustrator at an advertising agency which he would come to hate but was unfortunately tied to for economic reasons until the 1920’s. In order to escape his unsatisfying reality he traveled often to Europe and most often to Paris, under the guise of studying the developing art scene but in reality, more often spending his time painting alone. During this time, Hopper struggled to develop his personal style, but did begin to paint urban, architectural scenes in dark colors. In 1912, he traveled to Gloucester, Massachusetts for inspiration and painted the first of his lighthouse paintings, Squam Light.
Edward Hopper’s slow rise to fame
In 1913, Hopper sold his first painting Sailing (1911) at the Armory Show for $250, however despite this success it was another few years before his artistic career really took off.
In 1914 he was commissioned to create a series of posters and design the publicity for a movie company. Coupled with Hopper’s lifelong interest in theater and cinema, this had a great influence on his later methods of composition, which can be compared to cinematic stills.
Frustrated by oil painting, Hopper turned to etching and by 1923 he had produced over 70 prints, mostly of urban scenes of Paris and New York. His etchings began to be recognized publicly and Hopper also explored some of his later subjects through this medium, including, silence, loneliness, relationships and nautical scenes.
At the same time as his career was finally taking off, Hopper met the artist Josephine Nivison, who had also been a student of Robert Henri, during a summer painting in Gloucester Massachusetts. The couple were married in 1924 and Josephine renounced her own painting career to support Hopper. With her help, six of his watercolors were exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923 and one was bought by the museum for its permanent collection for $100. In 1924, Hopper had a solo show of his watercolors and after the exhibition sold out he decided to renounce illustration and focus entirely on painting.
It was in 1931 that his career properly took off, thanks to major museums such as the Whitney Museum of American art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchasing several of his paintings. In 1932 he participated in the first Whitney Annual exhibition and in 1933 the Museum of Modern Art held a first large-scale retrospective of his works. The 1930’s and 1940’s were Hopper’s most prolific years, when he painted most of his most famous works, including Nighthawks in 1942.
Hopper is today best known for his paintings of American life and his most popular subject matter was derived from common, everyday aspects of American life, from gas stations, motels, railroads, restaurants and street scenes to seascapes and rural landscapes. Hopper described his artistic approach by saying: “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist”.
What’s happening in Nighthawks?
Nighthawks is one of Hopper’s most iconic works and depicts three customers sitting at the bar of an all-night diner on a corner in Greenwich Village, New York, in oil on canvas. The cinematic viewpoint of the composition places the viewer outside the diner, as if passing-by and looking in on the scene, referencing Hopper’s interest in voyeurism. The harsh fluorescent lighting contrasts with the dark greens, browns and beige colors of the world outside to distill an eerie, suspenseful atmosphere. Hopper’s intense attention to the lighting in this composition also serves to enhance the sense of voyeurism, as it bounces off the surfaces of the diner, illuminating some and eliminating others, for example, the main window pain seems to hold no glass and provides a direct view onto the figures. Despite the total of four figures in this composition, they all remain separate from one another, seemingly lost in their own thoughts, which contributes to the aura of loneliness and melancholy that enshrouds this night time scene.
Hopper based the figures off himself and his wife and it is thought that he was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers”. In Nighthawks, Hopper depicts a scene of American modernity whilst also transcending it to embody more universal emotions. By emphasizing the anonymity of the space and the characters, Nighthawks is not contained within a contextual narrative but is rather opened up to a multitude of narrative possibilities to become ultimately a timeless composition. The philosopher Alain de Botton described the influence of this effect, stating: “Hopper is the father of a whole school of art that takes as its subject matter threshold spaces… places of transit where we are aware of a particular kind of alienated poetry.” Thus although Hopper’s works are today considered to represent the alienation and loneliness of wartime and post-war America, they also contain more poetic interpretations, as Hopper intended, of “inner experience”.