John Mcewen comments on Nighthawks
IN 1927, Edward Hopper wrote: ‘American art should be weaned from its French mother’ and create something ‘native and distinct’. Nighthawks was his most famous contribution to this end.
He was born at Nyack, on the Hudson River, into a devoutly Baptist family, his father a dry-goods store owner. A facility for drawing destined him for art, but his parents insisted he train as an illustrator before attending the New York School of Art, where he proved to be a star student. His favourite teacher was Robert Henri, who said art should be ‘an expression of life’ and ‘high art gives the feel of the night’.
Henri led the way in establishing American Social Realism; nevertheless, he urged his pupils to study the European masters first hand. Hopper duly based himself in Paris, which he loved. ‘It took me ten years to get over Europe,’ he said. After 1910, he never returned, earning his living in New York as an illustrator, while reserving half the week for his own art.
In 1924, he married Jo Nivison, a kindred romantic spirit and fellow artist, and had his second exhibition, a success that enabled him to give up illustrating. They lived frugally and didn’t have children. In 1933, he had a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Nighthawks was painted just as America went to war. It was inspired by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, New York. Hopper disliked artistic explanation and thought critics made too much of ‘loneliness’ in his pictures. However, he did admit that, in Nighthawks, ‘unconsciously, probably’, he painted ‘the loneliness of a large city’.