Waiting for the Nighthawks – Edward Hopper and the Denizens of New York

The Whitney’s exhibition gathers iconic work from near and far to remind us how much the painter loved Gotham.  


Edward Hopper was a visual alchemist. Scenes of life’s mundanities — offices, street corners, apartment blocks, rooftops — entered his eyes, traversed his meticulous brain, quested through spine and viscera, and flowed into fingers wielding brushes to materialize on canvas as mesmerizing dramas of light, volume, and psychology. Even when his workaday spaces are unoccupied, they thrum with mysterious narratives.

Hopper was born in Nyack, New York, roughly 30 miles north of Manhattan, in 1882. He died in 1967, in his studio overlooking Washington Square Park, and save for a few trips to Paris and some travels South and West, he spent his life under the Northeastern U.S.’s seasonally cycling light, whether in that Greenwich Village studio or during summer trips around New England. 

Hopper once said, “There is a certain fear and anxiety and a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city.” 

Certainly, anyone who approached New York from any point of the compass in the first half of the 20th century would have been dazzled by the gleaming crenellations of Manhattan. But Hopper found his inspirations at street level. Or, in the case of the 1946 canvas Approaching a City, in that sudden shift from outdoor light at grade level to crepuscular gloom as a passenger train plunges into a tunnel leading to New York’s underground labyrinth of tracks, stations, and platforms. As is often the case, Hopper’s metropolis is sparsely populated, even deserted. Light settles on concrete and brick expanses as palpably as the soot that discolors the entrance to the rail tunnel. There is no hint here of the postwar social fomentation already sending fissures through the facade of American conformity. Even so, the structures Hopper paints tell their own human stories — we know we’re not in a wealthy part of town, since a brick apartment house fronts on the railroad cut and its right flank faces an industrial structure featuring blank windows and two dark smokestacks. 

In his youthful sojourns to Paris, Hopper undoubtedly observed the occasional boulevardier: “From the crowded boulevards and cafes of Paris, a peculiarly ironic and detached view of life was emerging, based on the sense of dandyist display — ‘seeming’ rather than ‘being’ — disposable and rapidly changing style, fleeting social encounters, impersonal transaction” is how the critic Robert Hughes described the late-19th-century milieu of Henri de Toulouse-Latrec. Hopper shared with the older artist a fascination with performers and with the denizens of the night. In Paris, it was easy for an artist like Toulouse-Latrec to find the party, the leg show, the brothel parade. Hopper, on his visits to the City of Light, was more reticent, and in 1909’s Le Bistro or The Wine Shop (painted from memory in a studio Hopper occupied early in his career, on 14th Street), we get a conversing couple well to stage left, with pride of place given to a quartet of cypress trees gently breeze-bent in the sun-blanched center of the image. Despite the high afternoon light, the couple is occluded by shadow. An assignation? A fraught reunion? 

Three years after Le Bistro, Hopper painted New York Corner (Corner Saloon), which features roughly a score of pedestrians on the sidewalks. But they’re each alone, in a city of strangers, hurrying past newsstand, barbershop, and nondescript bar to more pressing destinations — a hubbub of commerce, not emotion. Whatever holiday hijinks Hopper might have experienced in Europe were left behind on his last trip to the continent, in 1910, subsumed by the Yankee astringency personified by the utilitarian pot-bellied stove in the fourth-floor walk-up studio/apartment on Washington Square that he shared with his wife, Jo, who was also a painter and his main model. While other artists of his generation, such as Reginald Marsh or Thomas Hart Benton, were happy to present America’s teeming masses — whether whooping it up through the Roaring Twenties or standing in breadlines as the Great Depression took hold, in the 1930s — Hopper sought out the solitary couple in hushed conversation, the night stroller lost in thought, the wallflower who never leaves the apartment, never mind attends the party.

Another path Hopper left mostly untraveled, but not before mastering many of its tenets, in the mid-’20s, was the American Precisionist genre, found in the quasi-cubist grain elevators painted by Charles Demuth or Charles Sheeler’s oil tanks buttressed by arched shadows — cathedrals of industry. Instead, Hopper climbed up to the roof of his and Jo’s residency to create, with astounding facility in the unforgiving medium of watercolor, paintings that captured with pitch-perfect color the translucent nature of shadows on a bright day. In My Roof, (1928) angled brush flourishes indicate that two skylight windows are open to expose a dark interior while another reflects blue sky filtered through decades of gray grime, visual beats picked up by a roof-ladder rail and a tar-papered birdhouse that juts from a wall like the gnomon of a sundial. Such scenes should be bland, but Hopper’s magic was to capture that moment when the eternal cycles of light and dark that animate architectural mundanities (and go almost universally unnoticed) coalesce into serendipitous choreography, like groups of dancers rushing in from opposite sides of the stage only to freeze into duets of the material facts of sunlit pipes and parapets and chimneys entwined with fleeting — but exact — moments of expressive shadows. This scintillating equipoise of color, shades, angles, and curves oscillates between realistic accuracy of the thing portrayed and wonder at the deft, delicate, and startlingly abstract composition of its two-dimensional portrayal. 

Yet these masterpieces of the medium lack the psychological patina that would color Hopper’s greatest work — although the artist himself asserted that in his canvases, despite their often strong if ambiguous narratives, any “psychological idea will have to be supplied by the viewer.” But, always complex, Hopper perhaps tipped a Freudian cap when he noted in an artist’s statement, “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangement of color, form, and design.” 

Without doubt, we glimpse someone’s inner life in the 1921 painting New York Interior. Dark bands on either side of the composition imply that we are looking through a window, or maybe an interior doorway. But the young woman pictured is most likely unaware that we are gazing at her bare shoulder blades, her long russet hair parted to expose a slim neck, her right hand lofted and taut as if she is pulling a thread through the white garment in her lap. Is she preparing her best dress for a night out? Returning from an encounter that left a rent in her gown? Throughout, Hopper daubs and scrapes paint, leaving smudges of green-gray inside the blue shadow of her strapless garment, which darkly reflects the tonal gradations of the … bed? hassock? that she sits upon. 

Around this same time, Hopper, having little luck selling his paintings, was making a living illustrating such thrilling publications as Hotel Management and Morse Dry Dock Dial, the latter being the house organ of a thriving Brooklyn shipbuilder. One illustration, dated c. 1916–25, a charcoal drawing titled In a Restaurant, pictures two men in intense discussion, one with dark hair and beard, rather unkempt, smoking and gesturing toward a heavyset man who gives the impression of a rough-hewn baby through his balding head and the voluminous bib protecting his gray suit. A diaphanous curtain from a nearby window blows in and partially obscures his back. Here we see Hopper working hard to animate the banal, to imbue an overhanging gaslamp and a pair of hats and coats hanging on the wall with a presence equal to the plotters — whatever this duo decides, the deadpan witnesses on coat hooks will tell no tales. 

As his art matured, Hopper would generally jettison such overblown sentiments for quieter, more noir mysteries. When first you peruse Drug Store (1927), you might not flash on the fact that the canvas was painted at the height of the Roaring Twenties, a time when Americans were awash in bootleg liquor, paper-rich on stock speculations, and passionately sobbing over the death of matinee idol Rudy Valentino. It was an era of speakeasies and easy emotions, a seemingly limitless bacchanal. Because Hopper, more far-seeing than most and already schooled in mixing typography and images from his day jobs as an illustrator, was focused on a storefront prominently advertising “EX-LAX,” suggesting that you could hobble across the street from your Village hovel and find relief in this chemical oasis aglow in the urban night. A cast-iron column throws cubistic shadows across the broad sidewalk; glass vessels filled with red and green liquid beckon the sickly. Hopper, through sensitively gradated surfaces and rigorously positioned objects, was starting to imbue his meticulous compositions with the heightened drama of stage sets. 

That same year, in Automat, Hopper took everyone to a place they’d already frequented at least a few times in their lives: that lonely table in a late-night eatery. She’s well dressed, her long, sumptuous green coat trimmed at collar, cuffs, and hem in dark wool or fur, her left hand still in a soft leather glove, her only companion a coffee cup. She stares downward — is there an answer in the tea leaves or the coffee grounds? Overhead light fixtures cast a cool glow, tinting tabletop and floor a pale blue, contrasting with her rosy skin; she looks healthy but unhappy under the restaurant’s interrogation-level brightness. We see only the lights’ reflections in the huge window behind her, as they march to a truncated vanishing point somewhere well out in the darkened streets. Subtle echos of shapes — a pair of stair railings, her legs, chair struts, door moldings, push bars, the reflected light globes — tick through the composition like hours on a clock face. Three decades later, writing in a small arts magazine, Philip Guston would state, “Painting is a clock that sees each end of the street as the edge of the world.” One can easily imagine that the New York School maestro was well aware of his elder’s appreciation of urban ennui, that funk that occasionally overwhelms even the staunchest city-dweller, despite the constant swirl of culture and commerce and cognition that defines a great metropolis. 


Early Sunday Morning straddles two seismic moments in history — the semaphore rhythms of the window shades could be viewed as the last remnants of the Jazz Age, while the deserted hush might be the silence of idled workers and machines as the Great Depression settled like grave dirt over the nation. 


A year later, Hopper torqued the screws even further by amping the call and response of compositional elements. In Night Windows, a curtain blows out of the left-hand window like a fluttering angel wing, its flowing diagonal echoing the bent back of a woman in the middle window who appears to be wearing only a red slip (her thrust posterior reverberates with the rounded architecture of this second-floor bay window arrangement). To the far right, purgatory reigns by way of a flame-red interior that casts an orange flush and crisscrossed shadows through the panes, adding to a drama that anyone glancing out the window of the elevated train as it rattles past could expand upon for their novel. A barely discernible sign in the lower-left corner continues the motif of thrusting diagonals, the multiple washes of paint and judicious palette-knife scrapings implying illumination during business hours. (And what a technician! Hopper’s works, even those past the century mark, display few cracks.) 

Then came 1930, a terrible year for NYC, the country, and the world, but a banner one for Hopper: Early Sunday Morning, with its low-rise block of shops topped by apartments, is an icon of urban America, albeit that fantasy of city living represented by the long-vanished intimacy of Greenwich Village — a Shangri-La where the sun is never blocked by a skyscraper or one of Robert Moses’s automobile skyways. At his easel, Hopper mostly ignored such architectural behemoths, but a dark square in the upper right corner of Early Sunday Morning, could be seen as an acknowledgment that the world’s soon-to-be tallest structure, the Empire State Building, was being constructed that year. At his writing desk, however, Hopper was firing off letters to fight eviction from his studio at the hands of one of New York’s more rapacious landlords, New York University. (He and Jo managed to keep their residence until they died, Jo a year after her husband. Since then, NYU has partially preserved the space, and visitors can see the printing press upon which Hopper cranked out his masterful etchings, the easel he built himself, and other accouterments of the artistic life.) Early Sunday Morning straddles two seismic moments in history — the semaphore rhythms of the window shades could be viewed as the last remnants of the Jazz Age, while the deserted hush might be the silence of idled workers and machines as the Great Depression settled like grave dirt over the nation. 

Move forward to the end of the decade, and in New York Movie (1939) we see Hopper at the vanguard of a zeitgeist that was coalescing as America clawed its way out of an economic pit and Europe was stumbling toward a second World War. The next couple of years would see the full flowering of film noir in such movies as They Drive By Night (1940) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). In Hopper’s canvas, we have a blonde usherette whose job is to keep an eye on the patrons watching the movie. Hopper creates a chutes ’n’ ladders space throughout the scene, one perspective taking us down through the mostly empty seats toward the screen, while the young woman in the side alcove is at mid-level, alone with her thoughts and her flashlight, and, finally, the balcony stairs, which are partially obscured by scarlet curtains — shades of the enigmatic inferno in Night Windows and perhaps an acknowledgment that movie palace balconies were ideal places for lovers to lose themselves in darkness. And we’ll never know what the abstraction on the screen is portraying: an arm over the shoulder of a lover? A fur boa around a resplendent wrap? Not until Andy Warhol’s 1963 film Kiss, in which mouths, faces, arms, elbows, hands, and necks entwine and morph into nigh-unidentifiable blurs of silver and black, would a movie screen again hold so many secrets. 

Hopper was an avid moviegoer, and used voyeuristic angles to strong effect. In Office At Night (1940), the painter matched Hollywood as he gives us a high vantage point from which to take in the action (we are like a spy lying prone on the half-height interior walls seen on the left side of the composition). A woman at an open filing cabinet pivots toward a desk where a man (her boss?) is studying documents. A rhombus of light from an unseen streetlamp enlivens the blank back wall with an abstract verve similar to the discerning tonalities in Kazimir Malevich’s 1918 Suprematist Composition: White on White. In this amped atmosphere, does the man know a sheet of paper has dropped off his desk? Will she pick it up when he’s not looking? Maybe that’s an overly dramatic question, but it also asks why Hopper placed the stray page there in the first place. Purely for coldly calculated compositional purposes? Well, this is the man who once wrote of wanting to create “a base of realistic art from which fantasy can grow,” adding, “The dreamer and mystic must create a reality that you can walk around in, exist and breathe in.” Then again, in another statement, this painter’s painter summed up any visual artist’s raison d’etre: “If you could say it in words, there’d be no reason to paint.” 

One of the joys of this Whitney show is the many preparatory sketches on display. Hopper would often sketch details from life, but he would edit and rearrange and transform them as his imagination desired when he worked in his studio on a final canvas. In the chalk-on-paper sketch Study for “Nighthawks” (from 1941 or 1942), all we get of the future iconic canvas is the bright rectangles of illuminated space and the dark row of buildings across the street, quickly indicated by dark sideswipes of the chalk stick; there are no customers or coffee urns. A second study includes spare indications of the three diners and the counterman, plus some slashes for stools and to indicate the coffee dispensers. A more complete study includes details — the name of the diner on the glass, perhaps a clock over the couple, maybe a menu on the counter — that were all excised from the final painting. What apparently couldn’t be pictured in chalk and charcoal but only in the final oil painting are the overlapping chevrons of pale green and blue light thrown onto the sidewalk by the interior ceiling fixtures, serrations that dovetail with the sharp-elbowed couple nursing their coffees. 

Hopper’s last painting, Two Comedians, from 1966, feels a bit stiff, like vaudevillians with arthritic knees. The two figures are dressed in white — behind them is a dark blue void, as if to step off the stage is to step into the beyond. Flat and palpably fake foliage frames the pair on the right side of the stage. Was Hopper openly acknowledging the artifice of his compositions, the staunch realist exposing what goes on behind the curtain? In any case, what might be lost in physical grace is gained in bittersweet pathos. 

We’re only four years shy of it being a century ago that Hopper created one of his first undeniable masterpieces, that vision of the young woman alone with herself in the automat — he’d already nailed something about urban ennui that is as old as “modernism” itself. Because at some point in New York, if you live here long enough, you know what it is to be a Nighthawk. Like the noir intrigues of big-screen Manhattan — the portrait of the not-so-dead murder victim in 1944’s Laura, the rain-slick streets, nightclub jazz, and misaligned motives of Sweet Smell of Success (1957) — it can’t always be defined, but it can’t be denied.  

Edward Hopper’s New York
Whitney Museum 
99 Gansevoort Street
Through March 5


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