nighthawk hopper edward what element of art
Edward Hopper, a major contributor to American art of the 20th century, is best-known for his edgy genre paintings, many of which could easily be stills from a movie. Consisting mostly of commonplace urban scenes, featuring no more than two or three individuals, and few if any distractions, they capture the isolation of city life like no other form of modern art in America. Inspired by street photography and movies (he was an ardent moviegoer), Hopper was also a fan of Impressionism and its focus on ‘the moment’, something he encountered on two visits to Paris in 1906 and 1909. In addition to his signature style of city painting, he produced some outstanding coastal views – see, for instance, The Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) at Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Although a long-term resident of New York, Hopper was born and raised in the small upstate town of Nyack, and is associated with American Scene painting – a style characterized by its use of specifically American imagery. Undoubtedly one of the greatest 20th century painters of America, he created a whole new vision of the individual in the city and revitalized the modern genre painting in the process.
For analysis of paintings
by American realists
like Hopper, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.
The painting at the right, Nighthawks, is Hopper’s most famous work. On display at the Art Institute of Chicago, Nighthawks is an oil and canvas work that represents Hopper at his most iconicand most popular. This 1942 work epitomizes Hopper as a painter of loneliness and existential solitude, rendered as the contrast between the mute colors of night and the harsh fluorescent glare of the diner lights. Hopper often drew on his immediate surroundings for inspiration, most notably New York City and Cape Cod. Nighthawks is drawn, in Hopper’s words from “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” Though the building that inspired him no longer exists, the evocative, transcendental diner that he depicted endures.
The undercurrent of desperation that makes the work so intriguing is subtly reinforced by the artist in a number of ways. Note that the selective angle chosen for the point of view precludes the entryway; these four human beings drawn together by happenstance seem trapped within the glass walls, specimens for our imaginations. The couple in the background hunch over the cherry wood counter, their faces tired and gaunt. The woman examines her nails, seemingly oblivious to the man sitting next to her. The man in the foreground sits apart from the rest, a mystery with his back turned and partially obscured from the light. And linking them, the soda jerk who seems trapped within the confines of the counter, eyeing the customers with perhaps a hint of suspicion. The time of night, the fluorescent glare, and the posturing all create a bleak, almost menacing solitude. Even the title, Nighthawks, carries tension with it. Hopper combines all these elements with a pervasive barrenness in the composition that haunts the viewer.
Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles 3/4 cross canvas at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre [sic] door into kitchen right. Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street at edge of stretch of top of window.
Nighthawks was probably Hopper’s most ambitious essay in capturing the night-time effects of manmade light. For one thing, the diner’s plate-glass windows cause far more light to spill out onto the sidewalk and the brownstones on the far side of the street than is true in any of his other paintings. As well, this interior light comes from more than a single lightbulb, with the result that multiple shadows are cast, and some spots are brighter than others as a consequence of being lit from more than one angle. Across the street, the line of shadow caused by the upper edge of the diner window is clearly visible towards the top of the painting. These windows, and the ones below them as well, are partly lit by an unseen streetlight, which projects its own mix of light and shadow. As a final note, the bright interior light causes some of the surfaces within the diner to be reflective. This is clearest in the case of the right-hand edge of the rear window, which reflects a vertical yellow band of interior wall, but fainter reflections can also be made out, in the counter-top, of three of the diner’s occupants. None of these reflections would be visible in daylight.
Puschak takes up that question in “Look through the Window,” a video essay that examines the power of Hopper’s art, “clean, smooth, and almost too real,” through a breakdown of Nighthawks, an expression of all of the artist’s themes: “loneliness, alienation, voyeurism, quiet contemplation, and more.”
Many Americans must have felt such vulnerability with a special acuteness at the time Hopper finished painting Nighthawks, “the weeks and days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when everyone in New York City was paranoid about another attack.” Everyone, that is, except Edward Hopper, who kept his studio light on and kept on painting beneath it. “The future was very uncertain at this moment in time, as uncertain as the darkness that frames the patrons of this diner, a darkness they’re launched into by Hopper’s composition and our gaze.” Some might say that times, in America and elsewhere, haven’t become much more certain since. We, like Hopper, could do much worse than continuing to create ever more deliberately, and to see ever more clearly.
There are a few things about this painting that can be noticed, even without thinking artistically. It is probably set in the 1950’s, because of the old fashioned drink machines in the restaurant, and the style of clothing that the people are wearing. It is most likely late at night because outside of the restaurant is deserted, and there are vey few people in the restaurant. Also, the lighting in the restaurant is very bright compared to how dark it is outside, and the light this building seems to be the only source of light in this particular area.
Just a little taste of those homages I mentioned.