Updated: Apr 22, 2021
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words- The Edward Hopper Story
On the wall of the Art Institute of Chicago is a painting that has become an American icon. As you stand in front of the painting, you cannot help but immerse yourselves in speculation about the characters in the painting. It is a simple canvas with several non-descript customers sitting at an all night diner.
We are viewing their night through the front window of the diner and we wonder what conversations are taking place, what stresses each of the diners have dealt with that day and how just taking a load off at this diner is relieving that stress. We imagine conversations; we give meaning and depth to the bleakness of the all night diner. The painting is called Nighthawks and was painted by the American artist Edward Hopper in 1942. It is the most famous of Hoppers’ works and depictive of his simple, scarcely populated paintings that nonetheless awaken our imaginations. It has been parodied, re-populated and animated. It’s most famous parody was the replacement of the obscure characters with Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Elvis Presley. The parody is called Boulevard of Broken Dreams and like the original Nighthawks has become a part of our American landscape.
Edward Hopper was born July 22, 1882 in Nyack, New York. He was a prolific painter with over 3000 canvasses painted, however, what inspires me most about Edward Hopper is first, his ability to say so much with so little, and his ability to overcome years of obscurity to finally, become an “overnight success” at age 41. A person only has to study some of Edward Hopper’s most famous paintings to see how much he “says” with a seemingly empty landscape. Hopper began studying art in 1899, first at the New York School of Illustrating and then at the New York School of Art. He studied under Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase, who in turn was educated by famous American painter John Singer-Sergeant. Hopper remained at the NY School of Art for seven years as he was considered a slow learner. In 1906, he left for Paris and was to spend most of the next six years abroad. At age 31, in 1913, he finally sold one of his paintings Sailing. He could not support himself with the sales of his oils or his watercolors and spend the next several years as a commercial illustrator to make ends meet. In 1920, The Whitney Studio Club offered Hopper his first solo exhibition and Hopper contributed 16 paintings, but did not sell a single one.
Finally, in 1924, two things happened that would change Edward Hopper’s life and help him become the inspiration that he is. First, he married a fellow artist Jo Nivison, who herself was an inspiration to Hopper. Next, he had his second solo exhibition at the Rehn Gallery and this time his exhibition sold out. He was 42 and suddenly people couldn’t get enough of Edward Hopper. Often what is seen as overnight success is actually years of toiling in obscurity waiting for a breakthrough. Over the next 20 years, painting after painting appeared that piqued the interest of critics and the public alike. Paintings such as House By the Railroad (1925), Chop Suey (1929), Early Sunday Morning (1930) and Gas (1940) are still discussed by art students today. He has been described as a “prophet of loneliness” and a pictorial poet who recorded the starkness and vastness of America. Hopper never gave up on his dreams and from 1925 until his death in 1967, enjoyed his place as a celebrated American artist, probably the most well known of the American realist painters. He is an inspiration to young artists and to middle age businessmen chasing their dreams to not give up, to continue to work hard and to achieve the object of their goals. As Susan Goldman Robins, author of Edward Hopper: Painter of Light and Shadow wrote, “Hopper’s is a story of determination, hard work and success.”
Don’t Miss It!
1. Visit the Art Institute of Chicago to see Nighthawks. Sit in front of it with a notebook for a good 15 minutes and record everything that comes to mind about the painting. Think about the relationship between the man and woman at the counter. Think about the day the lonely businessman has had, imagine the thoughts of the waiter. The key here is to get your imagination running and slowing your pace down enough to pull observations from the seemingly vacant painting.
2. Visit an excellent website on Edward Hopper www.edwardhopper.com where you can purchase reproductions of his prints, books on his life, and view many of his most famous works.
3. Never give up on your dreams. At 41, Edward Hopper had painted over 20 years, sold one painting and had to make a living as a commercial illustrator, something that by all accounts he hated. At 42, he was newly married, and had an entire exhibition of his work sell out at the Rehn Gallery. From that point forward, finances changed and Hopper was able to paint what he wanted, when he wanted.
4. If you have a budding artist in your house, purchase the book Edward Hopper: Painter of Light and Shadow by Susan Goldman Robins, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers. It outlines the story of Edward Hopper in an especially inspirational way for young artist.
5. Edward Hopper said “The man is the work. Something doesn’t come out of nothing.” Does your work reflect who you are as a person? Does the quality match the quality you want to display to the world? Is your signature on all that you do and is that signature distinguished?