Edward Hopper was an American Realist painter whose art has inspired generations of cinematographers and directors for over half a century. His urban and rural scenes conveyed a personal vision of American life. You may not have heard of him but you will recognise his very distinctive look. In a series of three blogs, I will be looking at Hopper’s techniques and devices, analysing his famous painting Nighthawks and finally explaining how his art has influenced filmmaking.
So, let’s dive in and have a look at Hopper’s devices…
Light – Hopper used light to conjure up the gloom of city life, the emptiness and uncomfortableness of night life and the harsh glare of a summer’s day. He used light to define sharp edges, show polish on furniture and glare of a room’s ceiling lamp (Office at Night 1940). He learnt about light in Paris and admitted: “Maybe I am not human. What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house”. Sculptor George Segal wrote that “when you get to a Hopper you have to get out on your sunglasses”. Hopper uses bright light, but it never gives warmth. In High Noon, (1949) sunlight seems to be attracting the woman like a moth to a light. In the 1960 People in the Sun they are worshipping it with no joy.
Office at Night (1940, top left), High Noon (1949, top right),
People In The Sun (1960, bottom left), Nighthawks, (1942, bottom right)
Buildings and furniture – Hopper made the architecture an equal subject in his paintings, with faithful representations of shop fronts, doorframes, and guttering. His intricate presentations of filing cabinets, chairs and typewriters give the viewer a sense of reality, that we are invited into the scene and there is nothing to hide. Some of his items reappear, such as the cash register in Nighthawks (1942) and Seven AM (1947).
Time – When he paints a balcony or an interior it is obvious what time of day it is. We see morning sunlight or dusk. He names some of his work after the time of day. Five AM (1937) Seven AM (1948) Eleven AM (1926), Cape Cod Afternoon (1936), Cape Cod Evening (1939) Cape Cod Morning (1950) Cape Cod Sunset (1934).
Windows – Hopper uses windows to convey much about the subject’s situation and our relationship to the subject. Subjects are often seen looking out through windows. Other times they are seen in rooms by the viewer looking through a window. Windows often transport the light to the subjects as demonstrated by Conference at Night (1949).
Conference at Night (1949)
Hopper and his wife spent days staging the paintings, with Jo serving as a model for usherette or office worker or whatever Hopper wanted in his scene. His process involved making multiple sketches of multiple perspectives and details. He played the role of director, casting the scenes, moving the props, shifting the lights. He staged dramas.
Hopper used perspective to draw the viewer in. In Approaching the City (1946) the rails lead us into a tunnel, providing a metaphor for the way the city sucks people in.
When Hopper painted a landscape, he did not choose a panoramic approach but instead isolated a subject. Solitude (1944) shows a single house sitting beside an empty road stretching into the distance. Hopper’s people are lonely and even his buildings are too.
Approaching the City (1946, left), Solitude (1944, right)
Looking at Hopper’s devices certainly remind me of the current situation we’re all in. We’re all looking out of our windows. We’re all feeling isolated. We’re all feeling lonely.
Above all, Hopper’s art feels cinematic. In the next blog we shall in detail at his famous 1942 piece, Nighthawks, which has been emulated by cinematographers without shame!