The elegance of Classic Hollywood defined an era. Every hairstyle, suit, fedora and cigarette helped to create a mood. The simplest things in life were important and lavishness was often left to the fantasy-makers of the silver screen. Underneath the smoky dames and quick-witted gentlemen was a foundation of ordinary people living in the real world. It was a place where conflict, inner or outer, couldn’t always be settled with snappy comments or a wink from a pair of bedroom eyes. Edward Hopper was an artist whose work seemed to follow the occupants of this less-glamorous existence like a shadow on the very streets he painted. His masterpiece, Nighthawks, is perhaps the single greatest commentary on life in the 1940s, as lived by forgotten people. Author Gordon Theisen analyzes Hopper’s work and its significance in his book Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche
Nighthawks, like many of Hopper’s darker pieces, portrayed the kind of ordinary setting that one might encounter on any given night. It’s a typical diner, nothing flashy or overstated, but isolated from its surroundings. Inside are four occupants and the requisite décor. The overall mood is bleak and the barren streets that trace the diner’s perimeter do little to brighten the views of its inhabitants. To the left, businesses that appear to have closed hours before sit dormant, partially illuminated but nonetheless ghostly. In fact, the city itself seems to have shut down and gone to sleep. The stark contrast of dark and light is like a noir snapshot, a single frame out of a tale about a frustrated gumshoe. Theisen plays a bit of a sleuth himself, combing through every inch of the canvas looking for interesting minutia.
Hopper began working on the iconic painting just after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941. With that event catapulting the United States into World War II, it’s reasonable to surmise that many artists put their feelings towards the war into their work. Hopper didn’t necessarily reinvent himself with Nighthawks. He had done many works prior that shared the same depressing, yet realistic view of life. Many of the subjects suffer from loneliness and appear to be trapped in the confines of Hopper’s brush. This would be the case in his sketch Night Shadows from 1921. The focus is one man walking, almost guardedly, through a desolate street with the dramatic shadow of an overhead lamp cast in front of him. Two more pieces of interest, both from 1927, are the hopeless Automat, showing a woman sipping coffee with her head hanging low, and Drug Store, a friendless building that could almost pass for being open on an otherwise dead corner.
Theisen uses these examples, among others, to solidify his theory that America was a very negative place during those years. The haves continued to have, but the have-nots sunk deeper into the pit of their own failures. It’s not unwarranted to assume that art imitated life in Hopper’s work. The gangster films of the 1930s were rampant during the years that America felt the effects of the Great Depression. The hoodlums on screen became the opposite of reality. They lived the high life; they took what they wanted and dared anyone to stop them. Film Noir portrayed men and women who were out for personal gain, even if it meant another person dying or being sent to prison unjustly. These films were a creative means of “revenge”, in that they were free to be whatever they wanted, regardless of the country’s problems. Theisen suggests that pessimism lies at the base of human heart, though some arguments are stretched a bit to help prove his points. All in all, Theisen’s speculations are interesting, if for nothing else than an extended look at the different forms of expression during the golden age. It just happens to be Hopper that Theisen singles out in the book, most likely due to the sinister undertones in his work.
Nighthawks is the epitome of the subtle misery that Hopper captured so well. The painting has spawned many imitations, notably Gottfried Helnwein’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Helnwein’s interpretation places Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and James Dean inside the diner. Even in this, the subjects are those who died much too soon. The pain of the artist is evident. Perhaps that was Theisen’s main intention – to showcase Hopper as the embodiment of pain in the early part of the 20th century.