Absence of noise, isolation, solitude: no other American artist has more masterfully dissected the monotony and the alienating nature of modern life than Edward Hopper.
Although the critically acclaimed painter was modest and did not speak much about his work, it does not just reveal a master of great talent, but it also suggests a conscious and rather articulated social critique continually imposed by Hopper throughout his five-decades-long career.
His work demonstrates that realism is not merely a literal or photographic copying of what we see, but an interpretive rendering. When interviewed for the Reality Magazine in 1953, Hopper stated that “great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.“
Born in 1882, in New York, the renowned artist came to prominence in the 1920s as a student of Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School. Throughout the years to follow, he witnessed an increasing shift of the American society, from the Great Depression to the post-war affluence of the 1950s. By focusing on the everyday themes mostly found in the urban environment, Hopper focused on various psychological effects caused by the modernization process.
By portraying figures in a slightly blurred manner, juxtaposing them against stark geometric forms, and illuminating them in a specific way, the artist achieved emblematic, mysterious and rather cinematic atmosphere, so it is no wonder that majority of his paintings are perceived as Noir film snapshots in color. The predominant feelings of isolation and loneliness have opened a wide debate on Hopper’s enigmatic vision, whose authentic imagery undoubtedly changed the course of American painting and set the foundation for the upcoming generation of Pop art and New Realist painters of the 1960s and 1970s.
This intimate and insightful approach is the most evident in his acclaimed Nighthawks painting, an iconic work which has helped define the Modernist movement.
Created in 1942, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is considered the incarnation of existential art, capturing the alienation and loneliness symptomatic of modern urban life. While Hopper did not intend to evoke a particular emotional state with his Nighthawks painting, the artist admitted that “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city”. A part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago since only a few months after its completion, Nighthawks remains the most requested and sought after painting in their collection and one of the most recognizable paintings of the 20th-century American art.
A stubborn realist throughout the development of a range of abstract movements, Edward Hopper‘s paintings are clean, smooth and almost too real. Consistently restrained and subtly suggestive, his paintings invite the viewer to contemplate the narrative. Depicting individuals who were usually isolated and disconnected from their environments, Hopper focused on the solitude of modern life. Suggesting much about his emotional experience as well as the psychological inner lives of his subjects, Edward Hopper led the way toward Abstract Expressionism.
According to the journal kept by Hopper’s wife Josephine, the Nighthawks painting was completed on January 21st, 1942 in New York, within weeks following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. For that reason, the work is often seen as an expression of wartime alienation. In this turbulent times in history when everyone was paranoid about another attack and New York held blackout drills on an ongoing basis as a way to practice hiding the city in darkness in case another aerial assault ever came, Hopper’s studio lights stayed on.
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting depicts four characters sitting in a sparsely furnished diner at night – a woman and three men. A single light source illuminates the diner interior and spills outward toward the exterior of an empty street where the world seems to have shut down. Placed in ambiguous relationships, none of the four figures in this picture interact with one another. With characters appearing disconnected from each other and the viewer, the Nighthawks painting suggests a chilling revelation that each of us is completely alone in the world.
With its simple setting, dramatic lighting and ordinary stillness, the painting makes it easy for the viewer to place him or herself into the scene, on the city streets. The main character of the work seems to be the diner itself, with strong diagonal lines accentuated by the counter and the stools. However, with no doors to enter, the viewer is shut out from the scene by a seamless wedge of glass, allowing the viewer to invade the diner’s private world and his Nighthawks from the street by way of sight only.
As in a classic film noir manner, in Nighthawks Edward Hopper sets the scene for action that doesn’t seem to have taken place yet. Characterized by an open-ended narrative, this painting embodies the artist’s interest in the themes of alienation, melancholy, voyeurism and ambiguous relationships.
Compositions and Light
In the paintings by Edward Hopper, buildings are often situated at angles to suggest that his subjects are both in front and behind windows. Presenting a separation between the inside and the outside, glasses in the windows seem to be non-existent, inviting the voyeuristic look and suggesting that interiors can be penetrated by gaze. This device is also evident in the Nighthawks painting, where the large window creates an implicit barrier between the viewer and subjects. The angle at which the diner is set onto the corner allows Hopper to show the people in a mix of frontal and profile views.
Hopper was obsessed with light and the way it fell on houses and people through windows and the colors it made. Yellowish fluorescent light is a substitute for sun in the Nighthawks, emphasizing the artist’s understanding of the expressive possibilities of light playing on simplified shapes. The light flooding the diner, the only one illuminating the painting, spills into the night through both windows onto both sides of the street corners. The light causes some of the surfaces within the diner to be reflective, which would not be visible in daylight.
The sign above the cafe advertising cigars for $5 and the cash register seen in one of the windows outside suggest a kind of everyday American experience. The Nighthawks scene is silent and serene, further highlighting the intense feeling of isolation.
“fine as Homer”
A few short months after Hopper put on the final touches, Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, declared that the work was as “fine as Homer”, referencing the 19th-century American landscape painter. He purchased the Nighthawks painting for the Art Institute for $3000 (around $43,200 today), where it remains still.
Hopper said that the painting “was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,” additionally noting that he “simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger.” The public has been trying to locate this particular diner in New York for decades, but after an extensive search, it is concluded that it was never a real place. Many people view it as an apt amalgamation of the ordinary and often overlooked sites that make up a modern city such as New York and so many others.
With its carefully constructed composition, lack of narrative and flat, abstracting planes of color, the canvas has a timeless, universal quality that transcends its particular local, making it an object onto which one can project one’s own reality. Indeed, Hopper’s Nighthawks could be seated anywhere. It is in this inherent universality, that the power of the painting resides.
An important piece of American Realism, the painting also has an ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia for an America of a time gone by. However, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper remains relevant even today as a subtle critique of the modern world, the world in which we all live, where an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and a deep desire, but ultimate inability, to connect with those around us prevails.
However much Hopper anguished over the displacement of nature, he never abandoned the city because, in addition to the compassion he felt for those who lived there, he reliably found in the city one remaning natural element – sunlight. With it, nothing was irredeemable.
By Katarina Mirkovic.