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Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.

About the Artist

Edward Hopper was born in Nyack, New York in 1882. His family owned a dry goods store where he occasionally worked. Edward drew constantly, and by the age of seventeen, decided he wanted to become an artist.

At the urging of his parents, Hopper initially studied to be a commercial illustrator, which they felt would have secured him with a lifetime of financial stability. However, finding this unfulfilling, he enrolled at the New York School of Art to study painting under the great American artist and teacher Robert Henri. He stayed for six years.

After his formal training, Hopper made three separate trips to Europe (1906-1910), where the influence of the French Impressionists became apparent in his early work. This influence is seen largely through his focus on urban settings, use of wide-angle views, and experimentation with the effects of light on a scene. In contrast, however, his compositions are generally very still and without action.

The next years were disappointing for Hopper. He supported himself as an illustrator and painted in his spare time. But with the influx of European artists fleeing to New York from their countries on the verge of war, he became an outsider in the art world. Hopper found that the world was not yet ready for his unique brand of Realism. He was continually denied exhibitions. Finally, in 1913, Hopper was invited to participate in the controversial Armory Show. However, the sale of only one of Hopper's oil paintings devastated the artist, and he would not sell another for nearly ten years.

Because he felt unappreciated, Hopper secluded himself, virtually abandoning painting and turning to etching. Over the next eight years (1915-1923), Hopper produced close to sixty etchings and became a detailed printmaker. The precise process of printmaking forced Hopper to view composition from a new perspective. He began to omit incidental subjects and construct cleaner lines. Hopper felt that his experience with printmaking helped him approach his painting from a fresh perspective. He said, "After I took up etching, my paintings seemed to crystallize." These etchings were the first of Hopper's works to achieve success.

By 1923, filled with a new energy due to his recent success, Hopper turned to watercolor. Although figures are never present in these paintings, Hopper's later style developed through this medium. Borrowing from the spare style he had honed through his etchings, Hopper focused his paintings primarily on the geometry of architecture, with simple masses and planes and sharply defined light and shadow.

Hopper's visual images center on spareness and alienation, loneliness, and exteriors of the urban landscape. He became known as the "painter of loneliness." With this theme, Hopper combined the techniques he had acquired from his watercolor and etchings and emerged with a unique oil painting style.

In 1924, at the age of forty-two, Hopper married painter Josephine Nivison, who would become his only model. (She is the redheaded woman in Nighthawks, while he used himself as the basis for all three men.) That same year, Hopper showed a successful exhibition of watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum.

Within three years he gained a reputation as a major American Realist painter. His deliberate and self-critical pace was rewarded with years of continued success. He exhibited frequently from the 1920s through the 1960s.

About the Artwork

As "a moment frozen in time," Nighthawks' psychological tension is powerful. The interior and exterior of the city are separated by a curved pane of glass that seals off the four people inside, who seem to be waiting for time to pass. The diner provides the only source of light, a harsh fluorescent (a recent innovation), which dramatically accentuates all the details of the interior while casting shadows on the deserted corner outside. We, the viewers, become the silent witnesses to this mysterious moment.

A Closer Look

Hopper's reputation as the painter of loneliness and estrangement stems primarily from his paintings of city life. He was drawn to the city for the "interior life the buildings contained--scenes observed through windows." Hopper was interested in painting the interior and exterior of a building seen simultaneously. Like Nighthawks, his paintings from the 1940s address Hopper's interpretation of the dichotomy of the city as a place for life and a place for work: nature (man/woman) and civilization (architecture) are juxtaposed. Perhaps a large part of the appeal of Nighthawks is that the deepest meaning speaks from the unconscious of the artist to that of the viewer. It is this quality that seems to elicit the viewer to project his or her own stories onto this painting.



Art Explorer (Art Institute of Chicago).

Art Explorer is a Web site that provides illustrations and interpretive texts for a cross-section of the Art Institute of Chicago's permanent collection, along with lesson plans, family activities, a glossary, bibliography, and links to related Web sites.


The Art Institute of Chicago. American Art and Culture. Teacher Manual. Art Institute of Chicago, 1995.

Langmuir, Erika and Norbert Lynton. The Yale Dictionary of Art and Artists. Yale University Press, 2000.

Wight, Frederick S. Milestones of American Painting in our Century. Chanticleer Press, 1949.

* Teacher Manuals are available at the Elizabeth Stone Robson Teacher Resource Center, The Art Institute of Chicago. resources.html, e-mail:, phone: (312) 443-3719.

Classroom Activities


The ambiguity of Nighthawks allows viewers to create their own narratives for the scene taking place. Have students write a short story about, or dialogue for, the four characters in the diner, studying the painting carefully for clues and ideas. What might these people be thinking? Have students present their writing to the class and discuss similarities and differences.

Middle School

Hopper depicted a particular vision of modern American life and its effect on people. Have students research one or more technological breakthroughs (between 1900 and 1950)that contributed to the accelerated pace of life in the United States. Ideas include industrial mass production, communication systems, transportation, etc.

High School

From 1927 until his death in 1967, Edward Hopper's work has some consistent stylistic qualities and themes. Have students research his career and familiarize themselves with many of his paintings. What formal similarities do they have? Do they, as is widely believed, depict bleak images of human isolation in modern, urban settings?

Rebecca Swayze, Student Tours, Department of Museum Education, the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Title Annotation:All Levels: Looking and Learning
Author:Swayze, Rebecca
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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