Understanding Edward Hopper’s Lonely Vision of America, beyond “Nighthawks”

Tess Thackara
Aug 9, 2018 6:43PM

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

For an image so often associated with loneliness, Edward Hopper’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, Mark Rothko, and Ed Ruscha. Yet the artist rejected the notion of his paintings embodying an American vernacular, despite having studied under and been influenced by Robert Henri, 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.

A reclusive teenager finds his voice


Hopper’s relatively withdrawn nature traces back to his childhood spent on the Hudson River in upstate New York. He was born in the town of Nyack in 1882, the second of two children in a middle-class Baptist family of Dutch descent. His father, Garrett, who ran a local shop and struggled to keep it afloat, was a lover of literature. His mother, Elizabeth, was an art enthusiast. They recognized their son’s early talent and encouraged his interest in the arts; the boy was signing his drawings by age 10.

A tall, gangly, and shy teenager, Hopper took refuge in reading and drawing, even poking fun at his awkward physique in some illustrations. But his ability as an artist also fostered lofty career ambitions. When he graduated from high school in 1899, Hopper composed an image of himself in cap and gown, clutching a diploma and walking towards a distant mountain labeled “FAME.” Beneath the pen-and-ink drawing, five words conveyed his trepidation for the future: “OUT INTO THE COLD WORLD.”

A brief stint in illustration school followed. It was an experience, Gail Levin writes in Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, that “taught [Hopper] that commercial work was as alien to his natural bent as business was to his father’s.” He transferred to the New York School of Art, where he took up painting and studied under Henri, who stressed the importance of connecting art to life and expressing emotion. Hopper was a star student. He spent over five years there before taking a job at an ad firm and traveling to Paris a year later.

On his first journey overseas, the 24-year-old Hopper absorbed European masterworks, including the detached female figures of Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) and Edgar Degas’s In a Café (1875–76). He particularly responded to Degas’s dynamically cropped, voyeuristic perspectives. And in Amsterdam, he was floored by the powerful lighting and operatic tension of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642).

These influences, fused with his longtime interest in stage sets and film, would ultimately surface in Hopper’s work. Skillfully deploying dramatic lighting, Hopper conjured the complex psychological states of his subjects. For example, in his late work Intermission (1963), a woman sits alone in a seemingly empty movie theater. Her absent, downward gaze is mirrored by the strong diagonal shadow that runs along the wall to her left. The very edge of a curtained stage is visible to the right of the frame. It is up to the viewer to imagine if she is waiting for the feature to resume, or for something else outside the picture plane.

The stillness of the room and the scene’s quiet tension suggest an intermission of another kind—a moment between events, to be alone with one’s thoughts. In an essay on the artist, curator Sheena Wagstaff pointed to the poet and critic John Hollander’s suggestion that light playing inside a room is an ancient metaphor for thought in a human head. Hopper’s paintings suggest this cerebral space, one where the souls of his imaginary subjects intermingle with the artist’s own psyche.

A tempestuous marriage leads to success

Although one of Hopper’s paintings was purchased at the legendary 1913 Armory Show, it would be at least a decade before he made another sale. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum’s antecedent, the Whitney Studio Club, gave him his first solo show there in 1920, but nothing sold. In 1924, the artist, age 44, wandered into New York’s Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery with a pile of watercolors. The gallery staged his second solo show, which sold out in its entirety. Hopper promptly gave up the commercial illustration work he’d taken on to make ends meet.

That same year, he married his wife Josephine, an artist he had reconnected with a year earlier; she had also studied under Henri at the New York School of Art. During their famously tempestuous relationship, Jo Hopper would become a strong influence on his career, appearing as the female subject in the majority of his paintings; facilitating and encouraging his work; and helping to shape his public image.

In her diary, Jo described her husband’s introverted ways. She kept accounts of his artworks, exhibitions, and sales. She played the gatekeeper to journalists and critics, awarding or—as in the majority of cases—denying them access to an artist who had little desire to put words to his work. “Purposefully, energetically, and with his full complicity, she engineered his legend as a recluse,” writes Levin.

Hopper’s successful show at Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery was a sign of good things to come. In 1930, his House by the Railroad (1925)—an unsettling image of a lone Victorian mansion that appears to hover on train tracks—became the first work to enter the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. A retrospective at the museum followed in 1933. Hopper had made it into the pantheon of American art, while his wife’s painting career dwindled. Her role, according to Levin, was not only as her husband’s wife and model, but as “the intellectual peer and fellow painter who both stimulated and challenged her more gifted colleague.”

The gregarious Jo modeled as female subjects of all kinds, but through Hopper’s eyes, she was often transformed into someone else completely—a showgirl, a wistful figure by the sea, a movie house usher. Hopper’s women sometimes surface anxieties about sex, and have spawned many feminist readings. In Excursion Into Philosophy (1959), a man seated on the side of a bed has his back to a sleeping woman, who is visible only by her bare buttocks and legs behind him. An open philosophy book rests beside him. The man, hunched over and defeated, appears to have found no fulfillment in either the world of ideas or the physical, carnal pleasures of flesh.

In other images, Hopper’s female subjects are more sympathetic, and more complex. In A Woman in the Sun (1961), for example, Jo is pictured as a strong, muscular, but world-weary woman, deeply involved in her interior world. A penetrating shaft of light through a window suggests a kind of melancholic transcendence.

Hopper’s lasting legacy

Edward Hopper, Western Motel, 1957. © Edward Hopper. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

The ambiguous, narrative richness of Hopper’s paintings—combined with their subtle, anxious energy—has given them a timeless quality, even as they are inexorably associated with mid-century America. “It is Hopper’s spareness,” writes art historian Deborah Lyons, “along with his progressive tendency to clear out detail and incident, which allows us to project the details of our own lives into his painted world.”

Perhaps it is this mastery of mood and atmosphere—the combination of human figures with the ineffable psychological force achieved through line, color, and light—that allowed Hopper to succeed as a figurative painter even as Abstract Expressionism ascended in New York and seemed to erase everything that came before it. He even earned the admiration of his AbEx peers. “I hate diagonals,” Rothko once remarked, “but I like Hopper’s diagonals. They’re the only diagonals I like.”

Western Motel (1957), painted late in Hopper’s career, illustrates the artist’s novel fusion of the figurative and abstract. A woman in a burgundy dress sits in a starkly furnished motel. She is framed by a wide, generous window that looks out onto a loose arrangement of blue-grey forms, rolling hills that pucker sensuously in the middle. The nose of a green car is visible outside the window, and her packed suitcase stands upright in the foreground of the frame. She is in the midst of a journey.

While the image conveys many of Hopper’s trademarks—an anonymous, transitory environment; an isolated figure—it suggests not loneliness, but rather the generative nature of solitude. The painting nods to a certain expansiveness of the American imagination, one fueled by epic landscapes, endless skyscrapers, and the freedom of the open road.

Tess Thackara