John Mcewen com­ments on Nighthawks

Country Life Every Week - - My Favourite Painting -

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’.

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