Tuesday, January 25, 2011

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #18 - Nighthawks

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942, Oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm (33 1/8 x 60 in.), The Art Institute of Chicago

Edward Hopper studied at the New York Institute of Art and Design and became a commercial illustrator. He went to Europe in 1906, but just like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, he did not embrace the theories and techniques of modernism. He preferred painting in a realistic style. Though he lived in the city, he was preoccupied with isolation and loneliness. His paintings reflect this duality - single figures in communal spaces, cities deserted except for one person. He did not initially enjoy success from his personal artwork and had to continue to work as a freelance commercial artist. By the time he was 40, he had only sold one painting.

He married Josephine Nivison who helped him promote his art. She was an extrovert, he an introvert, and she had a good instinct for business. She helped him get six of his paintings into an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923 and that proved to be the turning point for him. He gained attention, sales and commissions and was able to quit his job and begin to paint full time. The critics loved his work. He sold paintings to major museums and became financially comfortable. His peak productivity time was during the 1930s, but he painted until he died in his studio in 1967. His wife bequeathed his artwork to the Whitney Museum in New York.

Nighthawks shows a corner diner brightly lit against the night. The glass walls provide an easy view into the diner and the contrast between the spotlighted inhabitants and the darkened street make it seem like actors on a theater stage. We see them, but they do not notice the viewer. The scene is unremarkable, people dining, talking, a couple together, one man sitting at the counter alone. The server is waiting on them, but at this moment in time is also a bit disconnected and off to one side. Detail is spare both in the diner and on the street. You don't see anything in the shop windows, no litter on the streets, no sign of humanity except the people we see. It's almost as if the city is empty except for these four people and the scene has a quality of eerie solitude about it. (Anybody ever see the "Twilight Zone"?) We see a story, but don't know what to make of it. Barbara Haskell, an art historian, calls this "suspended narrative" or a "narrative of inaction". It's compelling for the viewer - you can make up your own story. Hopper gives the viewer a lot of creative license in the interpretation of the scene. What do you think is going on?

Self-portrait, Edward Hopper, 1925-30

1 comment:

Jillian Raftery said...

I loved Nighthawks - it was one of the images my AP Literature teacher used in high school that really stuck with me.

The clean lines are really amazing and not something that I (totally uneducated about art) would think of as something for a museum. From the frame it feels like one is looking into a painting that is looking at another painting.