Hopper and The Strokes Of Midnight

Coffee, black: Edward Hopper's renowned
Coffee, black: Edward Hopper's renowned "Nighthawks" (1942) is among the 110 works by the artist on exhibit at the National Gallery from Sunday through Jan. 21. (Art Institute Of Chicago, Friends Of American Art Collection)
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 14, 2007

Here's one clue to Edward Hopper. It comes from "What Are Masterpieces" by Gertrude Stein, which came out in 1940. "It is very curious," wrote that curious avant-gardist, "but the detective story . . . is . . . the only really modern novel form that has come into existence."

Stein was hinting at a mood -- of secrecy and suffering and aloneness among strangers -- that, new in 1940, is still part of who we are. Hopper lets us see it. Manliness and mystery pervade "Edward Hopper," a show with masterpieces, which goes on view on Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.

He was noir before that concept formed. Its mood of hidden knowing is a constant in his art. Hopper carves it out of shadows in his etchings. He pulls it from clear sunlight in his watercolor views of coastal Maine and Massachusetts. His oil paintings of the city summon it with color (maroon, acidic greens) and lead us to its lair, to anonymous hotel rooms, to freight yards at the city's edge, to the movie theater's dark.

There are no cops in his pictures, no guns, no snapping traps, nothing as crude as that. He refuses denouements. It's emotion he is after. Hopper (1882-1967) needs no creaky plots, just pale yellow window shades, sun-fall on a red brick wall, the glint of chrome at night.

To enter Hopper's world is to become his accomplice. The four figures you see in his best-known oil, "Nighthawks" (1942) from the Art Institute of Chicago, are not its only players. You are there as well, present but unseen.

It's nighttime in the big city. Safe folk are abed. Two men in gray fedoras, and one hard-featured woman, a redhead in a short-sleeved dress, are seated at the counter of an all-night deco diner. All of them appear to be listening to silence. The woman stares, distracted, at something in her hand -- a dollar bill, the check, perhaps a book of matches. A counter guy is serving. The windowsill is emerald. The coffee mugs are thick and white. The streets are still. The nighthawks are like specimens floating in a tank of light. A triangle of ceiling, as sharp as it is bright, hangs above them like a blade.

You're the unobserved observer, the watcher from the shadows, a kind of private eye.

The big window, you'll have noticed, has no pane. Norman Rockwell, another hugely popular painter of the time, was fabulous at painting glass, but Hopper didn't have his skill, and often leaves it out. His through-the-window glimpses -- such as "Apartment Houses," "Night Windows," the Hirshhorn's "Eleven A.M." -- are often similarly glassless, heightening the surreal sense of penetrating vision. You see with eerie clarity what is going on inside.

I loved "Nighthawks" as a kid (if you grew up in Chicago, you could ride your bike to see it). I loved Humphrey Bogart, too, and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, for not so different reasons. Fearless, knightly wanderers have been admired by Americans since the days of Daniel Boone. You can feel that admiration in Winslow Homer's paintings of men at war and sea. You can hear it in the strong and true and pared-down prose of Ernest Hemingway. (In 1927, when Hemingway's "The Killers" appeared in Scribner's Magazine, Hopper sent the editor a letter of approval.) It also fueled the quests of such New York street photographers as Walker Evans and Robert Frank. It's a staple of the movies. It's all over TV.

A Freudian might note that Hopper's pictures bristle with strong, upstanding verticals -- chimneys and masts, lighthouses and barber poles. Hopper won't paint limpness. He isn't into S-curves. Hopper, notes Franklin Kelly, the National Gallery's representative on the three-museum team that put the show together, paints "anti-sissy" art. He rejects the genteel. No ladies twirling parasols, or maids arranging flowers, decorate his pictures.

Unlike popular George Bellows, his virtuoso schoolmate, or Andy Warhol later, he never hymned the super-rich. Nor was he charmed by chic. Critics of the day used to slam the tastelessness of the complicated, tall, out-of-fashion Victorian houses that he painted in the '20s ("atrocious," "blatantly hideous"), but Hopper sensed the dignity of those scorned survivors, and he lets us see it, too.

His early art is rooted in France and in the Ash Can School. He'd gone to art school in New York, and thrice had lived in Paris, but the tall, laconic painter was never a bohemian. He cannot be imagined drinking absinthe in Montmartre's cafes, or wearing a beret. In photographs, he wears sober three-piece suits.

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