For an image so often associated with loneliness, ’s Nighthawks
(1942) is strangely seductive. Solitary, hunched figures perch on stools along the slender countertop of an all-night diner. Bright overhead lighting casts a theatrical play of shadows on the deserted sidewalk outside, with the sleek, curving form of the diner’s long window intersecting with the grid of storefronts behind. The famous painting offers a crucible of narrative potential, capturing the melancholic romance of city life: its endless possibilities—and inevitable failures—for connection.
Nighthawks is, in many ways, emblematic of Hopper’s noirish, cinematic style, characterized by its voyeuristic perspectives, dramatic interaction of light and shadow, and emotionally isolated figures that inhabit anonymous urban spaces—roadside diners, gas stations, hotels. “Hopper,” philosopher Alain de Botton once wrote, “is the father of a whole school of art that takes as its subject matter threshold spaces, buildings that lie outside homes and offices, places of transit where we are aware of a particular kind of alienated poetry.”
The artist’s oeuvre has become inseparable from a certain image of inter- and post-war America, when the country underwent rapid change and grew increasingly affluent, but feelings of anxiety and detachment abounded. Hopper’s paintings have influenced American cultural giants like Alfred Hitchcock,
. Yet the artist rejected the notion of his paintings embodying an American vernacular, despite having studied under and been influenced by
, a leading figure of the Ashcan School. “I think the American Scene painters caricatured America,” Hopper once said. “I always wanted to do myself.”
Hopper saw his paintings as more than a manifestation of a uniquely American aesthetic; they represented something personal, the expression of his “inner experience,” as he described it. Accordingly, his compositions render a psychological portrait of an elusive and introspective artist, even as they depict imagined scenes. “Sometimes talking with Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom,” his wife Josephine once quipped. Indeed, many of his works illustrate troubled romantic relationships. In painting after painting, despondent couples share the same space, even as they seem to exist in entirely different worlds.