Edward Hopper (1882-1967) painted one of the most famous works of art in American History, the gloomy 1942 canvas Night Hawks. The painting, which shows three men and a woman at an all-night diner in an unidentified city, was the most successful work of Hopper’s long and distinguished career.
Born in New York, Hopper enrolled in art school at age eighteen. His style, influenced by the Ashcan school, epmphasized plain, realistic portraits of scenes from everyday life. Hopper’s prosaic subjects included fire hydrants, bridges, gas stations, and people reading newspapers.
In the early twentieth century, however, Hopper’s stark realist paintings were unfashionable on the art scene, and he spent the first twenty years of his career toiling in relative obscurity. To make ends meet, he painted propaganda posters during World War I (1914-1918) and even won a $300 prize for his 1918 poster Smash the Hun. By 1931, at age forty-nine, Hopper had sold only two of his paintings.
The Great Depression, however, caused a seismic shift in the art world and a major reappraisal of Hopper’s work. Suddenly, interest among art connoisseurs in European modernism waned, while painting that addressed the country’s social problems became popular.
Night Hawks perfectly illustrates the sense of urban despair and loneliness that recurs throughout Hopper’s work. The four figures in the painting each appear lost in their own thoughts and are not looking at one another. The diner is brightly lit, but the light seems harsh and artificial, in implicit contrast to the cozy glow of a fireplace.
Hopper’s paintings of forlorn cityscapes have held an enduring appeal. In recognition of his lifetime achievement, shortly before his death, Hopper was one of eleven artists whose work was selected for display at the White House by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929-1994).
Nighthawks is now on permanent display at the Art Institute of Chicago.