May 21st 2017

Edward Hopper: the artist who evoked urban loneliness and disappointment with beautiful clarity

by James Peacock

Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures, Keele University
File 20170516 11966 19f50lf Automat (1927). Irina/Flickr

When Edward Hopper’s retrospective at Tate Modern in London closed in September 2004, more than 420,000 tickets had been sold. Up to that point, only the acclaimed duo of Matisse and Picasso had beat this record. It is now 50 years since Hopper died and his popularity hasn’t waned. What is it about Hopper’s brand of melancholy that has struck a chord with so many?

Walking through the rooms of the exhibition was both exhilarating and dispiriting. The vivid colours of Automat (1927) and Nighthawks (1942) against the contrasts of light and shade were sharp, suggestive and familiar. The images of lone individuals in impersonal spaces, with hollowed and dark eyes gazing from windows or down at their drinks, are combined to remind spectators that the default state of humanity is isolation. In Hopper’s works, even a buzzing city doesn’t remedy isolation, but heightens it.

Born on July 22 1882, Hopper later became a prolific artist. His works depict urban loneliness, disappointment, even despair. Hopper continues to be regarded as an important painter of the “American Imagination”, a phenomenon which his urban paintings capture.

In a transforming America of the 20th century, his brand of Americanism offered a counterpoint to American optimism. In this regard his work can be considered alongside the film noir of the 30s and 40s, and the work of writers such as Raymond Chandler. Like Hopper, the creators of noir and detective texts were concerned with the negative effects of urbanisation and increasing economic disparities. At the heart of Hopper’s urban vision are the paradoxes of the foundational democratic myth. We are all created equal, and yet what makes us equal is our absolute, inviolable uniqueness and individualism. Despite the melancholy and longing that haunts Hopper’s paintings, his popularity and influence endure.

Hopper in pop culture

Hopper’s paintings were a source of inspiration for his contemporaries and beyond.

House by the Railroad (1925) Leonid Ll/Flickr

In popular culture, he influenced a diverse range of artists including Alfred Hitchcock, who drew inspiration from his 1925 House by the Railroad for the famous Bates Motel in the latter’s 1960 film, Psycho.

Traces of Night window (1928) can be spotted in Hitchcock’s 1954 film, Rear Window, which features Jeffries, a news photographer, whose “world shrunk down to the size of a window”. Sitting from his apartment, he observes Miss Lonely Hearts, a woman “so lonely that even death seems like a friend”.

Nighthawks is perhaps Hopper’s most referenced work in popular culture, influencing Tom Waits’ 1975 live album, Nighthawks at the Diner. Hopper’s cultural reputation was surely cemented when the same diner from Nighthawks was reinvented as Moe’s Bar in Episode 18 of Season 8 of The Simpsons.

The haunting power of Hopper’s art derives from his particular brand of realism, one which is sparse, disinclined toward extraneous detail and, ultimately, characterized by what the painting seems to omit rather than what it represents. He turned iconic American spaces such as diners, drug stores, hotel rooms, gas stations and movie theatres into spaces reflective of the artist’s interior realm, spaces of mood, feeling, contemplation of one’s position in the world.

Behind the apparent simplicity of the paintings lies great complexity and depth. The lack of details invites the spectator to complete the image by speculating on past and impending events, on the relationships between the characters, and on the desires and anxieties provoked by our own need to examine these characters’ lives.

Night Windows (1928). Irina, CC BY

Perhaps this is why “voyeurism” is an overused term in Hopper criticism. A painting such as Night Windows (1928), which positions the viewer in a first-floor apartment looking across at a woman bending over in the room opposite, might be superficially considered voyeuristic, but it is better understood as a meditation on the need for connection, and the difficulty of reaching out and connecting with others. It’s as much a picture of our own sense of isolation (and, of course, Hopper’s) as it is a picture of a vulnerable lone woman.

Hopper’s earliest influences included the French Impressionists, particularly Edgar Degas. From these artists Hopper took a fascination with the play of light and a desire to create feelings and ideas in the viewing eye, rather than provide too many representational details.

Another important influence was Robert Henri, who taught Hopper at the New York School of Art from 1900. Henri, whom Hopper called “the most influential teacher I had”, was part of the “Ashcan School” of American realist painters. He too was dedicated to an unsentimental depiction of a diverse New York City and came into prominence in the early 20th century. The group also included William Glackens, John French Sloan and Everett Shinn.

One of Hopper’s most famous declarations, part of the “Statement” he submitted to Reality journal in 1953, makes clear his approach: “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.”

More than this, though, Hopper’s paintings also create a space in which the viewer’s own inner life can be regarded.

So when we look at another person, Hopper’s paintings invite us to ask, what exactly are we looking at? Reflections of ourselves, our desires, dreams and worries? Or somebody utterly other, someone we can never hope to understand or come close to? Are these two things, in the end, the same?

Abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko might have captured more boldly and viscerally a post-war, post-Holocaust America, and the pop artists might have engaged more explicitly with American commodity culture, but Hopper’s work continues to entrance because it explores so sincerely these fundamental questions about identity and interpersonal relations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related article:

Why the million-dollar view is bad for our body and our soul

by Xing Ruan

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 10th 2019


The eight-mile ‘river of flowers’ that grows alongside a motorway nea
Jul 5th 2019
"........since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980."
Jun 25th 2019
"For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering issues emerge. Every year, 66 billion terrestrial animals are slaughtered for food. Predictions are that meat consumption will rise, with increasing demand for meat from China and other Asian countries as their standards of living increase. The impact of grazing animals on the environment is devastating. They produce 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and livestock farming is a major contributor to species extinctions."
Jun 22nd 2019
"Throughout history, people who have gained positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with it. A desire for power often correlates with negative personality traits: selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. And the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and lacking in compassion."
Jun 21st 2019
"In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists."
Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019


“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own.