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Edward Hopper: images of solitude.

Looking Carefully

Nighthawks is one of Edward Hopper's best-known city portrait paintings. Painted in 1942, it depicts one of Hopper's recurring themes: solitude and loneliness in ordinary slices of life from urban America. The painting portrays the interior of a New York restaurant and its late night diners set against the darkness of the empty city streets. Hopper often chose city interiors as seen through windows, giving an intimate viewpoint of a spectator looking in at the unconscious actors. As if Hopper were speaking of himself, "The sensation for which so few try," he wrote of Charles Burchfield, "of the interior and exterior of a building seen simultaneously. A common visual sensation." In Nighthawks, Hopper created this interior/exterior visual sensation.

A carefully planned arrangement of shapes in Nighthawks is the basis of its dramatic composition. Hopper simplified the detail in his painting and relied on basic geometric patterns of straight lines. The restaurant gains a three-dimensional quality as its angular lines move diagonally across the picture plane forming a horizontal wedge. These angular lines are balanced by the diagonal row of buildings in the background. The heavy mass of the buildings carries an oppressive weight that con tributes to the mood of the painting.

The mood of Nighthawks is intensified by Hopper's use of contrast. The bright colors of the interior contrast strongly with the rich, dark exterior colors. His use of complementary colors is seen in the purple of the pavement offset by the yellow lighted interior and the reds against the greens through out the painting. These add to the strength and intensity of the image. Light and dark contrast is used most effectively. A subdued light from an unseen streetlight illuminates the dark storefronts in the background while the strong light of the restaurant interior bathes its occupants, isolating them from the darkened city.

Nighthawks is a powerful and dramatic portrayal of loneliness. The painting carries an air of detachment toward the human figures sitting silently at the counter. Along with solitude, Eros and the night are significant themes present. The man and woman in the diner, whose hands almost touch, convey a multiplicity of feelings: a contained hint of sexuality, boredom, solitude, detachment and thoughtfulness. The intimacy of our glance through the window speaks of the loneliness of the city night and the desire to find some possibility of comfort. When asked to comment on this theme, Hopper said, "It's probably a reflection of my own, if I may say, loneliness. I don't know. It could be the whole human condition."

Critics vary in their opinions about the meaning of the subject matter in Nighthawks. One critic compared Hopper's painting to Van Gogh's Night Care noting its sinister quality. Another writer, Loring Holmes Dodd, in his 1950 article, "Hopper Show Proves Him Stark Realist," spoke of a mood of impending violence: "in these predatory times it would not be surprising to see one of the three draw a gun and demand the contents of the cash register." Critic Gail Levin suggests that Hopper may have been inspired by Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers," in which the setting of the story corresponds to that of the painting. The word "hawk" is slang for a person who preys on others. It is also a verb meaning "to hunt on the wing." The cash register in the window across the street is considered to be a symbol of the greed of the nighttime robbers. Is Nighthawks the sinister tale of a robbery about to happen or the portrait of lonely people in the cheerless night city? Maybe Hopper gave us a clue when he said, "The loneliness thing is overdone."


Early Sunday Morning, painted in 1930, continues the theme of solitude, capturing the quiet melancholy and the monotonous regularity in the storefronts of the dawn street. Hopper again portrayed a scene of a city when few people are about. The sensation of the buildings continuing past the picture plane leaves the viewers with the feeling that this row of buildings is part of a larger and somewhat foreboding urban setting.

The overall design is based on a horizontal rectangle. Horizontal masses are repeated and shadows are crossed by the strong verticals of the barber pole, doorways, windows and the vertical of an unseen object implied by a long shadow extending across the sidewalk. Hopper carefully arranged his compositions. Why do you think he added this unknown? Once again, Hopper's use of the complementary colors, red and green, adds strength and intensity to an otherwise quiet and serene scene.

Key Concepts

* Careful planning of shapes is an important component of effective compositions.

* The use of diagonals can add interest and intensity to a composition.

* A pattern of repeated horizontal and vertical shapes can create a sense of stability and give unity to a composition.

* Contrasts of light and color can be used to convey the mood of the subject in a painting.

* Artists get their ideas from many sources including literature, their own experiences and views of everyday life.

* Interpreting the theme or meaning of a work of art depends on the viewer's knowledge and experience.


Edward Hopper was a man of few words who led a simple and austere life. Speaking of his quiet nature he once said," If you could say it in words, there'd be no reason to paint." Born July 22, 1882 in Nyack, N. Y., he began his art studies in illustration. He subsequently studied painting under Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller. His creative realist style reflects his training from Robert Henri, also a realist, whose subjects were scenes and personal portrayals of the everyday life of the city.

Hopper sold his first painting, Sailing, at the Armory Show of 1913, but did not begin to receive recognition for his work until the 1920's when his etchings and watercolors were exhibited. In 1924 he married the painter Josephine Nivision (who posed for almost every female figure he painted). They spent winters in New York and summers in New England or travelling in the Southwest. Hopper's views of the U.S. during their travels provided subjects for many of his paintings.

Hopper felt that art should portray the national character of a country and its people. In 1933 he wrote: "The question of the value of nationality in art is perhaps unsolvable. In general it can be said that a nation's art is greatest when it most refleets the character of its people." Along with capturing this national character, Hopper believed the painting medium should be a record of the artist's emotions. He felt 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." When asked about his lack of interest in the human figure as a focus in subject matter, he expressed that he wasn't interested in drawing people "grimacing and posturing. Maybe I am not very human. What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house." Hopper was modest about his ability to capture the psychological subtleties of mood and human interaction in the urban experience. But was Hopper inhuman in his preference for focusing on the human environment rather than the human form? Was he rather a great master who captured the character of places and its inhabitants, reflecting the mood of a developing industrial nation? Whatever the opinion and despite his modesty, Hopper is recognized as one of the foremost realist painters of twentieth century America.

Suggested Activities


* Compare Nighthawks and Early Sunday Morning with some of Hopper's other work. What are the similarities? What differences can you find?

* Critics don't always agree on the intended meanings of paintings. They sometimes base analyses on patterns they see in other work done by the artist, with this in mind, research Hopper's work and play the role of critic and author. Write your own story based on the scene in Nighthawks.

* Paint a scene based on looking into or out of a window where you live. Consider using complementary colors and lighting contrasts to emphasize the mood and emotion of the scene.


* Edward Hopper was trained by Robert Henri, the leader of the The Eight expressionist painters who tried to communicate their feelings about American life. They were branded by their conservative critics as "The Apostles of Ugliness" from the the Ashcan School. Research the art and artists from this school and compare their work with the art of the past thirty years. Would their work still be considered controversial and ugly today? Can you find other examples in art, architecture, literature or music that may have undergone similar shifts from the controversial and rejected to the accepted and honored?

* Read John Hollander's poem, "Edward Hopper's Seven A.M. (1948)" and look at paintings by Hopper. Discuss in small groups the references made to Hopper's works. Is Hollander referring to a specific painting? Are there other works Hollander could be referring to? What do you think Hollander's purpose was in writing the poem? Does it evoke a particular mood?

EDWARD HOPPER'S SEVEN A.M. (1948) by John Hollander

The morning seems to have no light to spare For these close, silent, neighboring, dark trees, But too much brightness, in low-lying glare, For middling truths, such as whose premises These are, and why just here, and what we might Expect to make of a shop-window shelf Displaying last year's styles of dark and light? Here at this moment, morning is most itself, Before the geometric shadows, more Substantial almost than what casts them, pale Into whatever later light will be.

What happens here? What sort of store is it? Whose windows frame such generality? Meaning is up for grabs, but not for sale.

* Hopper's choice of subject matter focused on everyday scenes emphasizing the solid geometry of architecture and light and shadow. Choose an area in your neighborhood with storefronts or interesting architecture and try to find shapes which repeat. Make a line drawing of the strongest verticals and horizontals. Are there also strong diagonals in the view to be considered? Does the light source and its resulting shadows add to the strength of the composition?


Brommer, Gerald F. Discovering Art History. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, Inc., 1988.

Goldstein, Ernest. Let's Get Lost in a Painting: Edward Hopper. Champaigne, IL: Garrard Publishing Co., 1983.

Goodrich, Lloyd. Edward Hopper. New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983.

Hollander, John. Edward Hopper's Seven A.M. (1948). The New Republic, V. 198, p. 37, February 1, 1988.

Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1984.

Lynn M. Aikman teaches in the Arts Impact Program in the Columbus. Ohio Public Schools. She is also a graduate student in Art Education at the Ohio State University.
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Title Annotation:includes poem about Hopper's work
Author:Aikman, Lynn M.
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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