The Making of the Painting, or How to Be a Stranger in Your Own Land
Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
--RALPH WALDO EMERSON
1. The Artist
Edward Hopper began Nighthawks in December 1941, shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. How difficult to imagine: like photographing a flower garden on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, not because a flower garden expressed certain feelings about the cataclysmic events of that morning, but because photographing flower gardens is your thing, is what you would have done anyway. While the country as a whole, pretty much overnight, committed itself to total war, "Ed," as his wife, Josephine "Jo" Hopper, recorded in her journal, "refusedto take any interest in our very likely prospect of being bombed ... . He's doing a new canvas and simply can't be interrupted."
Come what may, devotion to a self-imposed task evokes the archetypal American hero: Think of John Wayne in John Ford's 1956 classic western, The Searchers, striding across an arid Texas landscape for seven long years in quest of Scar, the Comanche who kidnapped and ravished his niece. He has put all else aside, cares only about doing what he knows is one absolutely right thing to do. Or think of Raymond Chandler's obstinately moral private detective, Philip Marlowe, who takes on cases with little chance of payment--he may even refuse payment because he cannot be bought, committed as he is to the interests of his client (even when that so-called client hasn't actually hired him or attempts to halt his investigation). He gets a job done and done well because it is his duty, however ridiculous he seems when everyone else is for sale because that's the best way to get by. So the fifty-nine-year-old Hopper, world war or no world war, meticulously developed a scene based on a Greenwich Avenue restaurant that he spotted during one of his meandering strolls through lower Manhattan.
He had labored in obscurity for some two decades following his graduation from the New York School of Art in 1906, supporting himself by illustrating advertisements, magazine articles, and movie posters. He despised this work and refused to do it more than three days per week to save time for his more personal artistic endeavors, but received scant attention for the few group shows he participated in. He was invited to contribute to the "Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Contemporary American Artists" in 1908, along with such up-and-comers as George Bellows and Rockwell Kent. But while the other artists displayed American views, Hopper--somewhat perversely, giventhe exhibition's stated theme--chose to display paintings inspired by a recent sojourn in Europe (mainly Paris), where he had traveled to visit museums and round out his education. He was duly ignored by the press. Not quite unjustly: The work was too derivative of French impressionism, which he greatly admired. Perhaps he needed the failure, the ensuing isolation, to keep to his own course, mature his style, and find his artistic identity.
He made some notable breakthroughs. The massive (36" × 72") near-masterpiece Soir Bleu (1914) portrays a voluptuous, heavily made-up prostitute surveying the customers in a Parisian café through narrowed eyes. She might be a demon searching for a soul worth stealing, and presages Hopper's career-long fascination with the enticements of very shapely women. New York Corner (1913) shows a group of faceless men in black hats and overcoats milling in front of a corner saloon on a gray, wintry day, the ice blue silhouette of a factory in the distance. At once ordinary and desolate, the painting won him some early praise when exhibited in 1915.
Wider recognition did not come until 1923, when he exhibited a series of brilliant watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum, done in and around the picturesque town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. These paintings dovetailed nicely with critics' increasing interest in often idealized American settings done in a plainly realistic (i.e., not avant-garde, not European, and hold the flourishes) style. Now in his forties, Hopper suddenly achieved renown as a portrayer of the "American scene." In 1930, the Whitney Museum of American Art paid the then-impressive sum of $3,000 for Early Sunday Morning (1930). This aggressively mundane, if sunny, depiction of a block-long redbrick row building with a barber pole, fire hydrant, and a strip of pale blue sky above but no people in sight, makes for a vision so silent andstill it suggests some mysterious vitality, the existence of which we are but latently aware and cannot name.
Hopper's reputation grew. In 1933, the Museum of Modern Art hosted his first retrospective. But recognition, even on this scale, did not compromise what critic Lloyd Goodrich called Hopper's "unwavering integrity" and "consistency," his almost defiant sense of himself as cleaving to a singular vocation, however propitious (or not) the trends might be. He would not give in to the art market any more than he gave in to the market for commercial illustration, which he would never again resort to. He continued to work slowly, completing only a few oils per year, always waiting until he was certain he had a fresh idea and would not be repeating himself. And he continued to spend a long time on each canvas, thinking a project through thoroughly before stubbornly painting and repainting, until he got precisely the intended effect (he liked working in oil, he said, because it facilitated "corrections and changes"). As the Great Depression continued, sales dropped off, and he faced financial strain, Hopper seemed to become even more selective, more afraid of simply coasting, of having nothing left to say.
When Hopper did get going again, it was 1940, and the war in Europe took up much of the public's attention (Germany conquered France in June of that year), but he was entering arguably the most powerful phase of his career. Six weeks after Pearl Harbor, he completed what critics often point to as his most accomplished painting, one the artist himself counted as a favorite. Nighthawks, unlike many twentieth-century masterpieces, has won admiration from those who champion the often inaccessible experiments that make up much of modern art, as well as those that do not. This is in many respects a deeply cold and alien work, despite its immediately recognizable subject matter: a nameless, nondescript diner late at night.
The diner is brightly lit from within, lending a whitish glow to the yellow walls and a shine to two large silver coffee urns on the far ledge of a mahogany counter. Three stray customers--a man and woman together and another man sitting across from them with his back to us--are being served by a younger blond man in a white uniform and hat. This scene is at a moderate distance, as if glimpsed while passing by, on the sidewalk perhaps, through the diner's plate-glass window. Above the window is an advertisement for Phillies: ONLY 5¢. AMERICA'S NO. 1 CIGAR. To the left is a section of the sidewalk and street outside the diner, empty of people and cars, of anything but shadows cast from inside the diner and by unseen streetlamps. On the other side of the street, across from the diner, is a two-story redbrick row building, with some windows on the top floor, their blinds partly drawn and impenetrable darkness beyond. On the bottom floor are a couple of storefronts, utterly vacant, as far as we can tell, except for a single ghostly cash register.
The casual if not quite relaxed image of a big-city diner in Nighthawks certainly exemplifies what someone might mean by the term "American scene," as much as would, say, a small-town soda fountain or sandlot baseball game. The painting has a definite sense of place to it, one that depends upon, and even helps to define, an American way of living. But Hopper came to reject the term: "I don't think I ever tried to paint the American scene." This was partly a matter of professional pride. He did not want to be regarded as a distinctly American painter comparable only to other American painters. He wanted to be on level with world art, to be compared with Claude Monet as well as Winslow Homer. But Hopper's feelings also had to do with how he thought about art, his own and in general. As he succinctly put it,"The man is the work." Schools, movements, and groups, like regional identity, were anathema to Hopper, or at least irrelevant. Great art, he felt, was about the individual artist behind the work trying to give his unique, innermost being an objective, communicable form on canvas: "I am trying to paint myself." Thomas Eakins was, Hopper said, "our greatest American painter" not because he provided a facsimile of his surroundings but because he was "a profound personality" who "speaks to us through his art."
This notion might be applied to any artist from any nation or period. But it is characteristically American in the sense that Walt Whitman is characteristically American: not because he gave one of his poems the title "Song of Myself" but because all of Whitman's poetry could be gathered under that title. One value American culture continually and predictably holds up--we might even say rigidly conforms to--is the value of nonconformity, of the individual following his or her own heart. The individual is paramount over teachers, over friends, over family, over circumstance: Today we have made popular literary genres out of confessional verse, the memoir, the personal essay, and first-person journalism, in which events being reported occasionally recede in importance before descriptions of the reporter's efforts to report them.
"Whoso would be a man would be a nonconformist," wrote Emerson back in 1841. This was in "Self-Reliance," one of a series of philosophical essays in which the first-person singular makes a repeated and more than incidental appearance: We cannot even speak of truth as existing apart from the individual who is perceiving that truth. And Emerson's dictate could serve as a motto for "maverick" CEOs who "think outside the box" (and have themselves been publishing a lot of memoirs of late) and trendy pop stars, as well as the willful radicals who jump-startedthe revolution and the Puritans who left everything they knew behind in order to practice their own brand of worship without harassment.
This is not to say that Hopper's notion that art expresses the artist's innermost self was facile, only to suggest--his own denials aside--that such an American notion should hardly have kept him from portraying the "American scene." For Hopper, who was too diffident for merely confessional self-exposure, it was quite the opposite; "painting myself" meant painting the external world in accordance with his "personal vision" of it. He felt that abstract painting fatally lacked the artist forging connection between himself and the facts of his environment.
To mean something, anything, art must provide a specific sense of where you are and where you have been, of your particular take on the larger history of which you, willingly or not, form a part. Hopper's first title for Skyline Near Washington Square (1925), an unpeopled watercolor of a multistoried building seen from a lower rooftop, was Self-Portrait. Immediately after he complained to an interviewer about having "the American scene pinned on me," he detailed his ancestry: "Like most Americans, I'm an amalgam of many races," but mainly Dutch, specifically "Hudson River Dutch--not Amsterdam Dutch."
The artist who painted Nighthawks knew well his pedigree and heritage. And if he was capable of pursuing an emphatically personal vision even at the onset of war, Nighthawks gives ample evidence of the importance he granted to being in a specific place at a specific time. For unlike an image of a sandlot baseball game or small-town soda fountain, which might easily assume an aura of being outside both space and time, of being mythic rather than historical, the urban diner Hopper portrayed is securely rooted in the early 1940s. Diners, for example, were a twentieth-century phenomenon, increasing in numbers throughthe 1920s and 1930s and reaching their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. The whitish glow within the diner, meanwhile, has the unvarying flatness of fluorescent lights, which had only a year or so previously attained widespread use in stores and restaurants. Advertisements like the advertisement for Phillies cigars, which tops the diner, became ubiquitous in the early decades of the twentieth century. Phillies themselves could be sold for "Only 5 cents" because they were rolled by machine rather than by hand, an innovation that came about in the 1930s, when cigar interests were trying to regain market share from cigarettes, which had been rolled by machine since the mid-1880s.
The soft, brimmed, dark-banded hats worn by the diner's male customers--fedoras--were, along with their suits and ties, practically mandated wear for men in midcentury (they were originally worn by women, back in the late nineteenth century). The way that the female customer's tight burgundy shirt exposes the lengths of her arms and her neck down to beneath her collarbone, and how her hair spreads out to her shoulders, reflects the way women were supposed to look in an era that gave rise to such pinup queens as leggy Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth.
All of which, while typical, may well have lent itself to a personal vision for an artist for whom such details were remarkable because of who he was and where he had been.
2. The Man
Hopper lived in Manhattan for sixty-odd years--his entire adulthood--in a fourth-story walk-up apartment off Washington Square Park, and Nighthawks is one of many paintings of his that directly reflects life in a big American city in the twentieth century. But he was born on July 22, 1882, in Nyack, NewYork, a small town on the west shore of the Hudson River, twenty-five miles north of Manhattan.
He was raised there in a handsome, if relatively plain, two-story clapboard house with a large front porch. Built by his mother's grandfather, the Reverend Joseph W. Griffiths, in 1858, the house was sited on a rise near the river, and from his bedroom window Hopper could watch the ships sail past. In 1856, this same Rev. Griffiths had founded Nyack's Baptist congregation, which the Hoppers attended. Hopper's father, Garret Henry Hopper, a friend of the minister, served as trustee, and Hopper himself attended Sunday school there. Garret Hopper was, for his part, the descendant of Dutch traders who had arrived in America in the mid-seventeenth century; his mother was a zealous Methodist.
Hopper's experience of Nyack was as the eldest son in a family that had roots in the town for three generations and in the nation for more than two centuries, lending him a sense of tradition, of being where he belonged, with a deep, rigid faith as central to his identity. Critics would later note an austerity in his painting they would term "Puritan," and there is evidence of sexual and emotional repression in the Hopper household. Hopper's younger sister and only sibling, Marion, would die in 1965, having never married or moved from their house in Nyack. Hopper was self-conscious and reserved (even late in life, renowned and respected, he could sit through entire dinner parties hardly uttering a word) and did not sustain a serious relationship until his early forties. But repression was hardly unusual or frowned upon in their era, and the Hoppers were prominent members of the local middle class, while the town itself was, initially at least, busy and bustling enough.
Nyack was incorporated in 1872. Two years earlier, trackswere laid, connecting Nyack to New York City. In addition to being a busy port for steamers and for a ferry that crossed the Hudson, the town served as a rail hub, with some thirty passenger trains a day passing through during Hopper's childhood. (The trains impressed Hopper and would become a recurring motif in his painting.) Nyack also boasted six shoe factories, three cigar factories, a carriage manufacturer, a piano factory, a church organ factory, as well as three shipyards, which captured the young Hopper's imagination. Showing an early talent as a draftsman, he thought of becoming a marine architect. At fifteen he designed and built a sailboat; soon after, he made his own canoe.
The financial panic of 1893 gutted local industry, however, and Nyack never recovered. It became something of a touristy stop for those wishing to escape to a relatively placid and pristine example of Victorian America. But the Hoppers did not depend upon local industry or on Garret's dry-goods store, where the town's housewives purchased fabrics to sew clothing for themselves and their families. Hopper's father had no head for business, and his store never made much money. But Hopper's mother, Elizabeth Griffiths Hopper, had inherited enough to keep them comfortably ensconced in the God-fearing and well-mannered (to us, restrictive) lifestyle of their standing and their time. Meanwhile, however, the country as a whole surged ahead, full-bore.
Change occurred so fast and along so many different lines in the last decades of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century as to make any attempt at summary seem insufficient for omitting significant examples, yet overblown for ignoring both long-term antecedents and striking continuities. Even today, the nation is dotted with small towns where families like the Hoppers, with set beliefs and socially conservative predilections, exist in great numbers, albeit with such arguably superficialdifferences as cars and microwave ovens. But still: If the ubiquity of rail service had been a seventy-year project that had finally come to fruition by 1900, when some 190,000 miles of track worth $10 billion threaded the country, peak use would not arrive until the 1920s. This was the era that saw such dramatic, world- and worldview-altering innovations as electricity, telephones, cameras, movies, phonographs, and lightbulbs. The internal combustion engine was put to use in cars, airplanes, and tanks, while the ancient dream of traveling underwater, embodied by the submarine, finally became reality. Indeed, an entire panoply of technology and machinery that both defined what we call progress and allowed us to fight a pair of wars that involved most of the globe and left millions dead came into being.
This was also when the Wild West was parceled out and closed off while immigration soared: 788,992 arrived in 1882, the year of Hopper's birth. Rapidly growing cities crammed with factories and tenements absorbed the excess workforce and much of the rural population as well, replacing farming communities as the nation's cultural centers. Which is why, in part, there appears to have been a decline in religious belief. The immigrants, many of them non-Protestants--whether Asian or, more often, Jewish or Catholic--tended to dilute the American-style Christianity in which boys like Hopper were raised. The applications of scientific methods to human beings, both hard (Darwinism) and soft (psychology, sociology), provided alternatives that drew academic resources away from theology. What was really happening was not a drop-off in church attendance--America continued to have, as it has now, a higher church attendance rate than Europe--so much as a decline in the attention paid to religion by educated elites. If they did not consider religion a pernicious hodgepodge of superstition bypassed by new ideas (à la Marxists and Freudians), they deferred in a modernist-relativistmanner to a stew pot of various creeds, none of which could be said to be more valid than any other.
Secularism, popular among those whose ideas and activities had a certain preeminence, did coincide with a breakdown of social mores. Women left the home and joined the workforce, smoked in public, and agitated for the right to vote.
They also wore less clothing, moving, for example, bit by bit from the full-body bathing suits of Hopper's youth to the bikini in some fifty years. Divorce rates went up, marriage became for many not a sacred union but a "companionate" civil contract to be ended as soon as either partner became dissatisfied. The country was already headed in the direction of sexual tolerance that would explode in the 1960s and give us pornography as mainstream entertainment by the 1970s.
Increased mobility reduced the importance of towns such as Nyack and local ties to neighbors and to relatives. Technology-driven business activity was remaking a renegade democracy into a capitalist-industrial powerhouse overseen by such multimillionaires as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, generating a host of new opportunities for success and wealth. But these opportunities were mainly in cities, where vice and crime were also concentrated, and where a young man from a small town would confront the modern world on his own.
In the summer of 1899, Hopper, now a lanky (six feet, five inches) high school graduate of seventeen with blue eyes, brown hair that he parted down the middle, and surprisingly full, sensual lips, decided to take advantage of his talent for drawing. He did not and could not simply declare himself an artist in the higher sense. His parents' values were too staid, and although comfortable, they were not rich. His immediate goal was to support himself. This meant skipping college and trying his hand at the then burgeoning field of commercial art. It meant commutingfrom Nyack to the New York School of Illustration on West Thirty-fourth Street in the biggest, busiest city of all.
It didn't last: The lessons on offer there were far too limited for his talent and need to express himself. With his parents' approval, Hopper spent the next six years studying at the New York School of Art, much of this time under the tutelage of one of the best-known and most inspiring teachers in the country, Robert Henri. Henri advocated originality in painting and celebrated the messy energy of contemporary life, encouraging his students to go out and find fresh subjects that would free them from the past and from the academy and give them greater scope to put their own unique imprint on their work. These were lessons that Hopper would ultimately follow. Many of his paintings represent extensive wanderings through the crowded and quickly evolving streets of Manhattan, vacations along the shores of the Northeast, and long drives across the country. He was always looking out for something that he could put on canvas and make thoroughly his own, while displaying an attentive eye for detail--his having been there at that specific place right then.
But Hopper's paintings would not of themselves pay the rent--not yet. He took up commercial illustration after all, joining C. C. Phillips and Company, a recently established firm on East Twenty-second Street. Later, after three trips to Europe to polish off his education, he became a freelancer, which gave him more control over his schedule but also involved scrapping about for short-term jobs with magazines and other clients. This gave him firsthand experience with what might be somewhat righteously termed the "hard reality" of America: making and buying and selling--the subordination of self to meet the demands of commerce.
Meanwhile, his ambitions for serious art and the connections he made among his classmates kept him in touch with the morebohemian element. He counted as a lifelong friend fellow alumnus Guy Pène du Bois, himself a talented painter and also an insightful critic who would be one of Hopper's early champions. Hopper was also friends with the novelist and sometime socialist John Dos Passos, author of the trilogy U.S.A. (1930, 1932, 1936). He spent summer vacations at Ogunquit and Monhegan Island, Maine, and (later) Cape Cod, where New York's artists and writers gathered away from the heat. He continued to read widely, as he always had, in classic American and English literature. He was dedicated to Emerson in particular, but he also kept up with recent works, and was especially fond of E. B. White and the poet Robert Frost, whose often dark, unadorned aesthetic resembles his own. He knew French well enough to enjoy poets like Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine in their native language, and was a fan of Thomas Mann, Goethe, and Proust. He accepted Freud. He did not attend church. He became an avid moviegoer, as if to unify his intellectual and artistic interests with his professionally acquired knowledge of popular tastes.
The cultural and commercial ferment of New York could be said to have suited Hopper, and given his drive and capacity, it was perhaps a necessary relief from the provincialism of Nyack, which he once described as "intolerably stupid." But he hated the restrictions of commercial illustration, and hated as well the consuming efforts at self-promotion required of a freelancer, often needing a job "for money and at the same time hoping to hell [that he] wouldn't get the lousy thing." And he never gave up his ties to Nyack, retaining until his death the house his great-grandfather had built. Among his fellow artists, Hopper was known as excessively quiet, as if he was holding something back or keeping his surroundings at bay: Lloyd Goodrich noted his "monumental silences," du Bois his "refusal to compromise," i.e., make small talk, "for social reasons." He remained regularand relatively sober in his habits, smoking some but spending no time in bars or drinking to excess. He was frugal, staying in the same small Washington Square apartment for decades, eating out--but cheaply, and buying secondhand cars. He did have a summer house with a studio constructed on the still-undeveloped coast of Maine in 1934: His single luxury was a space far from even casual contact with other people. Hopper was also that relative rarity among artists, a staunch Republican. And while he was an artist during a period when promiscuity among artists provoked no great scandal, he did not have much, if any, kind of sex life--not until forming a romantic liaison with one Josephine Nivison.
Nivison, who went by Jo, was an artist herself, who had studied under Henri at the New York School of Art in 1905 and 1906, the last two years of Hopper's attendance there (she remembered Hopper, she later said, but did not know him at the time). A "passionate prefeminist" with "quicksilver intelligence," according to art critic Brian O'Doherty, she was in many ways Hopper's opposite: a city girl and a joiner, who taught public school and acted onstage, as peppy as she was short (she reached to just over five feet), and almost excessively chatty. She did not hang out in bohemian circles reluctantly (as Hopper seems to have done) but enthusiastically, including among her acquaintances photographer Alfred Stieglitz and painter Marsden Hartley. However, she was still a virgin at forty when she struck up a friendship with Hopper while on vacation in Gloucester in July 1923. Yet nude sketches Hopper made of his wife over the years testify to a sustained erotic charge between the two of them, and to her willingness to let Hopper explore his sexuality.
She helped him in more practical ways, as well. It was Jo who got him his first big break by convincing him to submit some ofhis new watercolors to the Brooklyn Museum exhibit. They married soon after, without ceremony, on July 9, 1924, and she was his constant companion from then on, reading the same books he read, traveling with him, and more. She would encourage him during his often frustrating dry periods, suggesting subjects and even starting a painting to get him to paint. She was the model for all the women in his work, while he used himself as model for the men. As his fame grew, she became something of a personal assistant, handling his mail and requests for interviews, during which she often added her own comments to make up for her husband's reticence.
Jo became, in brief, exactly what Hopper required, a mediator between himself and society-at-large. With her there, he was able to overcome his dalliance with French impressionism and replace it with a more clear-eyed style that directly confronted his surroundings. This enabled him to produce a remarkably wide-ranging record of the country, from the Northeast to the deep South and on into Mexico, from the eastern seaboard out into the West. He painted small offices and row houses, train stations, gas stations, movie theaters, the rooms and lobbies of hotels and motels in cities and along highways. He painted hulking tenements near a drab but eerily lit factory along the East River. He painted an Automat, a barber shop, and a corner drugstore. He painted banks and cafeterias, mountains, coasts, and forests, waitresses, and sunbathers. He painted a bright red neon sign burning behind a pair of flappers eating in a Chinese restaurant, a man sitting on a stoop smoking a cigar before a darkened storefront, and even a stripper prancing across a stage in a G-string and high heels. He captured farms and suburbs, along with the streets and byways of small towns and rural enclaves. He painted cramped inner-city apartments and two-story clapboard houses like the house he grew up in (he revealingly titledone such painting, of a pair of plain white houses with white picket fences, Two Puritans ).
But if Jo helped make his career, their marriage, however close, was not happy. According to Goodrich, who knew the Hoppers, they could "be appalling frank with one another" and "to hear them sometimes one was convinced they were at the breaking point." From critic Robert Hobbs we hear of Jo's "imperiousness" and of "the constantly bickering, jealous female" whose "failings" Hopper did his best to "understand." But however much the harpy Jo was, she seems to have had reason to complain. Hopper was, it turns out, too old-fashioned to take to the idea of a woman artist, much less compete with his own wife for attention. Her career, which had been going well, took a backseat to his. Worse, he often denigrated her talent, and despite his increasing clout, did not put forth any effort to get her noticed by dealers or gallery owners.
The bedroom was also a problem for Jo, as we learn in Gail Levin's Hopper: An Intimate Biography. If she was willing to indulge his sexual interest, he seems to have had little or no interest in her sexual desires. In her journal, Jo recorded an ongoing bitterness at what she felt she had given him being met with so little in return. The conflict between the couple was not only vicious, painful, and persistent, but also physically abusive. They had violent, knockdown fights, with him slapping her and throwing her around, and once dragging her forcibly from their car onto the ground after she had gotten into a minor accident. She, for her part, made up for her deficit in strength by scratching and biting, even drawing blood.
Yet, as Goodrich puts it, "there was no mistaking their deep mutual attachment and dependency." Hopper did love his wife, in his way, writing her notes of endearment in French after fights, doing her portrait, being her constant companion as shewas his, and at least helping her out in small ways: She would ultimately testify that "he has had a lifetime stretching canvases for me." But perhaps for the very reason that he depended so heavily on Jo, he resented her. Even in marriage, and in such intimate, daily contact with another human being, Hopper needed to maintain a certain distance. He could not entirely relinquish his independence for his wife any more than he could ever quite fully acquiesce to New York City, to commerce, to the lefty artistic milieu in which he found himself, to the modern world. "One was aware," according to Brian O'Doherty, "in his presence, of a slight displacement in his experience of his own person." A part of him arguably remained alien to what he had become, i.e., something other than a boy from a religious family in a small, decorous, Victorian-era town.
But what kept Hopper apart also made him acutely aware of contemporary life and caused him to portray life as he saw it, without resorting to what he considered faddish strategies, such as cubism and surrealism, employed by so many of his fellow painters. Hopper's distance also explains why, rather than moving forward, he retreated from impressionism to a version of his other great influence, nineteenth-century American-style realism (especially Eakins and Homer). It also explains how he could bring drama to ordinary subjects, such as a diner, making extraordinary images of them: It gave him a skeptical perspective on the new liberties and multifarious changes he saw around him. If Hopper's genius lies not in this skepticism as such, it lies in both the subtle and the blunt ways in which he expressed his skepticism, like a lone guerrilla warrior using whatever lies at hand to discomfit an infinitely more potent enemy.
If he painted the very movie theaters he often attended, he portrayed them as garish, too large, overly ornate. If he painted a row of picturesque houses on a rise along a suburban street, heincluded a small, forlorn "for sale" sign and a bunch of unsightly telephone poles. He might slice through a group of buildings by placing an iron bar in the foreground, or cut off the view entirely halfway down with a concrete wall, making certain to place fire escapes along their sunlit facades, perhaps a billboard off to the side. The cafeterias he painted were clean (too clean) and impersonal--places people ate without talking or enjoying their food. If he painted a train station he included no train, no sense of the muscular force and excitement of technology, but portrayed it at night, darkened, vacant, a place that no one would go if they could avoid it, except perhaps to hide. His women are often busty, made-up, with their cleavage and sexy shapely legs on display, but they are not flirty, not inviting. Like his men, they are often dejected, looking downward, alone and lonely, or simply blank, as if their surroundings have robbed them of their very being, or pushed it so deep inside there was nothing of it left on the surface for anyone else to see.
So it is with Nighthawks. We are clearly being shown an image of a diner in a big city. But the people in the diner do not seem particularly pleased to be there, and what gives the diner such presence is not details like the matching fedoras on the male customers or the billboard, though they do ground the image. It is, rather, the same thing that makes the expressions on the faces of the people (surly for the man facing us, angry for the server, detached for the woman) seem appropriate: the dark, empty backdrop. This backdrop undercuts the glow within the diner: What is electric lighting but a poor modern contrivance?
Ironically, however, the diner stands out like a beacon against the weirdly desolate backdrop because of the lighting. The modern, after all, gave Hopper his subject and made his austere, old-fashioned realism significant.
3. Both Old and New
"I am trying to paint myself," Hopper said, and he was aware that a kind of cultural collision between old and new was inextricably tied to who he was. He explicitly engaged this collision in paintings such as House by the Railroad (1925), which rather brutally juxtaposes an antiquated mansion with train track.
The mansion is sober yet luxurious. Three large stories with a turret that once, no doubt, provided a panoramic view of the surrounding scenery, a sloping mansard roof with three bright red chimneys, and a colonnaded veranda rise up against a bland sky of light blue and white. But we see the mansion from the front, shadowed as if in consternation, its base abruptly cut off from view by a rust red rail atop brown dirt. And that's it: no birds, no people, no clouds. The painting could be pure allegory, or (as critics have argued) nostalgia for a nobler past all too conveniently disavowed in favor of what has been passed off as a great leap forward.
This interpretation is fine as far as it goes, except the mansion is a bit too much, too sober, too luxurious--an example of what Raymond Chandler once referred to as "jigsaw gothic." Hopper's background was middle class, not aristocratic, and his mansion does not embody some hypothetical Victorian owner's upstanding character and impeccable moral hygiene. Rather, it seems designed to contain secrets, immoral in kind, which may one day burst forth as if from a decaying estate in a horror story by Edgar Allan Poe. It is more appealing than the train track, but as Nighthawks and the careful attention Hopper gave to painting the track suggest, he had no problem portraying the conventionally ugly. House by the Railroad does present a collision between old and new, but without sentiment, without judgment, and without resolution. The mansion rears up as if affronted bythe unmitigated audacity of the track in presuming to exist within its purview--those red chimneys are like spots of rage--while the track, sure of purpose, blithely ignores the mansion's dated claims.
The painting is itself contemporary. However skeptical of the modern he may have been, Hopper was not especially nostalgic and never tried to re-create some fantasy idyll of small-town life à la Norman Rockwell. He avoided historical topics. Mansions like the mansion in House by the Railroad still stood in 1925, though as in other Hopper paintings, they might be reduced to taking boarders or serving as redoubts for rumrunners. But still: That mansion looks pretty commodious, not just functional like an apartment in the city to come home from work to and sleep and eat breakfast in before going off to work again. It is where we might feel deeply and think freely, where we might live life as an end in itself, something to wallow in rather than use up. The track, meanwhile, provides an awkward path for strolling. Trains are about getting as much material and as many people as possible from A to B with all due haste because we have things to get done, business to take care of, or, if lucky, vacation with family and friends to maximize before getting back to business again. The train sets the pace, and we accommodate ourselves to it as best we can, with its schedules, seating, and compartments.
The modern takes us over and redefines us: The diner in Nighthawks is no more accommodating of the customers' particular needs and desires than Henry Ford's assembly lines were of the long-term development of individual skills and knowledge of his employees. Biographies, blood ties, and social status would have been important to the original owners of the mansion in House by the Railroad, as they were to Hopper's sense of himself. But trains don't ask about the pasts of their passengers, and diners do not care where you came from or where you aregoing, do not care whether you are married or not, do not wonder about your values or your religion. The only thing any diner needs to know is what you want to order and whether you have the money to pay for what you order. We are at liberty but disconnected, isolated, and transformed from particular people into generic units.
Modern art movements were attempts to come to terms with this or to rediscover something enduringly human. Dadaists in Zurich during World War I were intentionally offensive, obscene, and irrational: Painter Marcel Duchamp purchased a ceramic urinal from a factory outlet, turned it upside down, signed it R. Mutt, and submitted it as sculpture to the Independents exhibition in New York City in 1917 (the urinal, called Fountain, was rejected). Cubists such as Picasso and Braque tried to beat change at its own game, showing an impossible multiplicity of perspectives in a single painting. Italian futurists used a similar method to celebrate the modern as an exhilarating confluence of speed, energy, and violence. Surrealists looked inside to the presumably premodern phenomena of dreams and the libidinous unconscious. Abstract artists reduced painting to its formal elements: shape, line, and color. In New York after World War II, abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock reintroduced content, of a sort: They painted emotion itself, passion itself--the primal something-or-other in all of us.
Hopper would have none of it, up to and including the brilliant innovations of Picasso, whom he regarded as "capricious," a chic trickster: If you follow your heart, you will get where you want to go, we tell ourselves. To "be a man," as Emerson declared, means not conforming; means photographing flower gardens on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, because that'swhat you were going to do in any case; means come-what-may devotion to a self-imposed task. It is easy to imagine that an enormous amount of frustration must attend such an ethic, most of it hidden by failure and death: Bucking trends can be a form of self-destruction. But in insisting on making accessible pictorial paintings long after it made any sense to do so, Hopper evolved a vision at once archaic and distinctly modern by portraying the lost place of the individual--of his own stubborn, willful self--in the twentieth century.
The people we see in the diner may be overwhelmed by their surroundings, may feel dejected, sullen, angry. But they are not part of their surroundings the way the Hoppers were part of Nyack in the late nineteenth century. They only happen to be there. Any one or all of them could just as well be in another diner in another city, on the subway, entering a movie theater, or in a bar in, say, Kalamazoo or San Francisco. This accidental quality is all the more powerful because Hopper gave them such a solid, three-dimensional presence. Those customers and that young server in his white uniform are what keep Nighthawks from being only an exercise in atmospherics. We want to know more about them. How much does the server hate his job? What is the man with his back to us thinking about? They allow us to enter into the painting, to wonder something similar about ourselves: What do we think and feel when we pass through such establishments or wander down such empty streets, and, also, does it matter?
That what we think and feel may not matter--while it would have been pretty much all that matters to those living in a mansion like the one in House by the Railroad--lends Nighthawks a subliminal jolt and suggests one way Hopper might be said to prefer the past.
4. The American Scene
Whether Hopper actually did prefer the past, a perception of him as something of a throwback to a purer version of America had much to do with his increasing fame and respect in the years following World War II. His paintings sold well: Nighthawks itself was purchased shortly after completion by the Art Institute of Chicago, where it remains on prominent display. He was elected to membership in the National Institute for Arts and Letters in 1945. Hopper retrospectives were featured at the Whitney in 1950, the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1962, in Arizona in 1963, and in Detroit and St. Louis in 1964. New work was exhibited in Detroit and Boston in 1950, and Hopper represented the United States at the Vienna Biennale in 1952. He received top prizes and honorable mentions in a variety of shows and was granted three honorary doctorates: from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950, Rutgers University in 1953, and the Philadelphia College of Art in 1965.
But perhaps his most significant recognition came when his picture adorned the cover of Time magazine on December 24, 1956, because it underlined his popularity outside of artistic circles and the attraction his work held for people who rarely set foot in a museum. A section of the adoring article within, entitled "The Champion," venerates Hopper as the latest chapter of what the writer implies is the sole authentic American style of art, here termed "searching realism." Hopper proves that "for the past two centuries" domestic painting "has stood on its own two feet, comparing favorably with the art of every nation except France." This, of course, flatters the attitudes of the magazine's readers. They would also presumably appreciate that Hopper "denies none of the Anglo-Saxon attributes which are so strongly built into his character" or that while painting has becomethe plaything of "clattering egos" (the arrogantly recondite avant-garde), he remains as steadfast and straightforward as "a tree growing on Main Street."
Predictably, Hopper thought little of Time's efforts to immortalize him--would he ever escape that "American scene" stuff? One can sympathize with the touchiness, the wish to be taken on his own terms, period. But it was as a portrayer of the American scene, and because of how far Hopper took traditional American realism, that he had an enduring effect on other artists and on writers and movies. And if the "tree growing on Main Street" metaphor is a bit too homey, his accomplishments did require a rooted resistance to shifting winds of taste.
Hopper further demonstrated this resistance by not being affected much, if at all, by fame and fortune. He, for one, did not move to a large house on Long Island, eat in the finest restaurants, buy the best of everything, or dally with younger women. He stuck to his routines, his parsimony, and the wife with whom he continued to fight. His art had made him more than an artist; he became a public figure of some stature. He was invited to the inaugurations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (he refused both). But his interest never ceased to center on art, and he did not coast but remained as meticulous, and as displeased, as ever. "There is a loneliness about him," wrote artist Raphael Soyer, who met Hopper in 1963, "an habitual moroseness, a sadness to the point of anger." His last works included A Woman in the Sun (1961), in which a woman stands naked, lit by sunlight in a sparsely furnished bedroom, smoking a cigarette, and looking sad and distracted, as if being naked in the sun meant no liberation, gave no pleasure. In Sun in an Empty Room (1963), sunlight is the only sign of life, but it is pale, not warming, and not for anyone. The painting might be a dryly ironic anticipation of Hopper's own death, which occurred onMay 15, 1967, in the studio of his Washington Square apartment--where else? He was buried back in Nyack in a family plot on a rise with a view of the Hudson River.
What we are left with is what he left us--his paintings, and mostly Nighthawks. More than any other Hopper, and arguably more than any other American painting, Nighthawks has moved beyond art and made an indelible impression on the national imagination. If you mention Hopper's name to Americans, Nighthawks is the painting they will recall, the one they have not so much consciously considered as much as simply accepted as part of their cultural heritage. It did matter, despite his own skepticism, what Hopper felt and thought: This is a work in which he managed both to sum up and to give a unique and powerful take on who we are.
STAYING UP MUCH TOO LATE. Copyright © 2006 by Gordon Theisen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.