Case Study: Edward Hopper’s New York

Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his [sic] personal vision of the world. Edward Hopper, 1953 (quoted in Hobbs, 1987: 64)

Edward Hopper (1882–1967), an artist with a huge posthumous following (a traveling retrospective of his work in the summer of 2004 drew massive crowds to galleries worldwide), is often seen as the quintessential American 'Realist', not least because he studied with Robert Henri, the teacher of the famous Ash Can Realists at the New York School of Art, which has often led to erroneous associations of Hopper with the Ash Can school. Hopper was certainly a Realist, yet his brand of Realism was unique, and very different from his contemporaries who sought to fulfill Henri's injunction to his students to paint the crowded life of the modern city, implicitly that of its poor and immigrant communities. Hopper never painted urban crowds – quite the opposite, as we shall see. A brief biographical sketch helps us understand the foundations of the anti-urbanism visible in Hopper's art.

Hopper was a recluse who spent a lifetime reading poetry, literature, drama, and philosophy, absorbing what he learned from books and observed from life, and applying it to canvas. His childhood was spent in an uppermiddle class Dutch settlement, Nyack in upstate New York, a world away from the expanding metropolis to the south where he would make his name and live permanently from 1910 to his death in 1967. The roots of his approach to the city can be found in the place in which he was raised, one where nature, community, religious education, patriotism, and duty were seen to lead to a solid moral existence. The 1890s, the decade of Hopper's adolescence, marked the acceleration of urban and industrial development that eroded traditional ways of life and challenged that solid moral existence of rural and small town America. Gail Levin, Hopper's most prolific biographer, identified this period as the root of the conflicts that Hopper lived throughout his life between traditional and modern, rural and urban, American and foreign ways; conflicts he would explore again and again in his work. Crucial to the development of Hopper's attitude toward the city were the writings of Thoreau and (particularly) Emerson, two individuals known for their dislike and distrust of city life in favor of romantic notions of the entwinement of humans with nature, and with whom Hopper felt close intellectual affinity. On Emerson, Hopper once said: ''I admire him greatly. I read him a lot. I read him over and over again.'' Hopper held Emerson in such high esteem that many have argued that he sought to express the Emersonian vision through his art. In The Intellectual Versus the City, White and White refer to Thoreau's classic Walden (1854) as a

bible of anti-urbanismy The values it espouses are essentially those of the isolated individual, living in nature and free of social attachments. (1962: 30)

The connections are striking – most of the people in Hopper's urban paintings are isolated individuals who appear out of place, detached from the city both socially and spatially as it changes around them, and seemingly bewildered by the threat to 'nature' posed by the built environment. Another writer who harbored an approach to the city to which Hopper could relate was Henry James, whose The American Scene (1907) was full of negative portrayals of a New York placed in cultural opposition to European cities. Hopper spent his early twenties in Paris, which he described to be ''very graceful and beautifulyafter the raw disorder of New York,'' and the year James' book was published was the same year Hopper returned to New York from Paris. The American Scene was avidly consumed by Hopper as it viewed urbanization with suspicion, and returning to New York after a lengthy absence made rapid urban change all the more tangible and unsettling to the artist. The appearance of skyscrapers in New York's cityscape was seen by James and then Hopper as representative of encroaching, unwelcome modernity – a theme which is never far from a Hopper painting and usually depicted with trepidation and uneasiness. Take the following observation, again by Levin:

He rarely represented skyscrapers at all, and when he did, he reduced them to fragmentary glimpses or intrusions on the cityscapeyHis recurrent visual ironies on the manifestations of modern life suggest his highly ambivalent attitude toward the changes occurring in twentieth century society; it is his profound alienation from contemporary life that makes his art so characteristic of modernity itself. (1995a: 229)

Skyscrapers, to Hopper, were signs of unruliness and dislocation – serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from disruptions to this almost puritan way of existence. The workings of modernity were antithetical to a man who disapproved of social and structural change, of overcrowding, of disorder. Although not an outright misanthrope, Hopper was a deeply private man lost in the worlds of his art and his passion for reading. He lived in New York City for most of his adult life, yet it is hard to find a Hopper painting where this city is celebrated or loved, or presented with any optimism. Much of this arose from his observations of social life in New York during the inter war years of Prohibition and Depression; strikes, unemployment, protest, poverty, and uncertain futures had a profound effect on his vision of the city. Hopper saw what could happen to a city when its growth was explosive, when its economy collapsed, when some of its people were left behind and struggled to make sense of the transforming world in which they lived.

Hopper's Sunday (1926) provides an instructive illustration (Figure 3). It shows a solitary man in contemplative mood sitting in front of a store. Hunched forward and appearing bored and disconsolate, it is a forlorn and lonely scene which deals with themes of emptiness, isolation, and loss. Although the man is shown on a Sunday, his day of rest, the store behind him is empty, lacking window displays or any other suggestion that it is ever open for business. We are left wondering if this is the storeowner, his livelihood in tatters, who is living his life in perpetual Sunday, reflecting on his losses and worrying about what to do next. While the painting predates the Depression, it is a portrayal of an individual bypassed by the optimism and opulence of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'Jazz Age', someone struggling to make sense of what has happened to him and his business as the world has changed around him. Hopper's profound suspicion of modernity is suggested by the nineteenth-century storefronts – they have become the walls of a twentieth century ghost town, and like the man who sits before them, relics of an age which Hopper preferred, an age of small, modest businesses and architecture of a more human scale. While it could be argued that the painting has a small town feel, it was in fact based on Hopper's frequent sojourns to the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York.

Sunday. Edward Hopper (1926). Oil on canvas. Reproduced with permission of The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Early reactions to Sunday were notable for their tendency to describe its 'Americanness' in both place and subject. Perhaps this is because the title has universal significance, or because the location is unidentifiable – this could be any city in the USA. Most relevant to this discussion, perhaps the Americanness comes from the depiction of a city street that has come to exclude and alienate one of its residents. The storekeeper is left helpless and idle, exhibiting vulnerability rather than confidence by staring into a space to which he no longer belongs, and the viewer is left almost wanting to console him. It is this side of the painting which tells us much about Hopper's unique brand of Realism. The viewer becomes more involved than in earlier American (Ash Can) Realism for two reasons. First, the city is completely devoid of any optimism, depressing rather than liberating, lamented rather than celebrated; and second, city people appear emotionally weak and lost in their own melancholy thoughts, detached from the world around them in a near catatonic state. Is this man socially isolated because he is suffering from Durhkeim's condition of 'anomie'? In Sunday, we begin to imagine the inner situation of the man in the painting, how the city may have fashioned that situation, and reflect upon why this man appears to have been left behind by the optimism of the time. This is concentrated Hopper – lonely, silent, reflective, melancholy, empty.

The same themes can be detected in the New York night that is the setting for Hopper's most famous work, Nighthawks (1942) (Figure 4). Hopper contested those viewers who looked beneath the surface, saying that the work showed little more than ''a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,'' but was later forced to admit that ''[u]nconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.'' Some key indicators help us to generate disquiet in a scene which has a calm surface appearance, and situate the composition firmly within the anti-urban mould. It is a scene of contrasting qualities of light – the only light for the empty streets comes from inside the restaurant, amplifying the motif of darkness outside and intensifying the painting's communication of loneliness. Nowhere is this more effective than in the darkness behind the couple at the counter, which sits uneasily with the restaurant's bland cream interior and its glaring lighting. Hopper scholar Robert Hobbs contends that it is the use of light that is responsible for the mood of the entire scene:

Circular in form, this building is an island that beckons and repels; and the fluorescent lighting is intimidating, alienating, and dehumanising. It creates an unreal and artificial feeling of warmth, an atmosphere that is clinical and more in tune with a laboratory than a restaurant. (1987: 129)

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942). Oil on canvas. Reproduced with permission of the Art Institute of Chicago.

There is contrast within the restaurant too – the third character at the counter with his back to us, nearest the street, seems more in tune with outside than inside relative to the others, and less of an extra on a deserted stage, perhaps because of his positioning and solitude. This creates a sense that the couple facing us are alienated from their surroundings, literally out of place in a space which stands for little other than isolation.

Hopper was fascinated with cinema, and it is no coincidence that Nighthawks was painted at a time when the film noir genre was beginning to penetrate American public discourse. The genre's dark, dramatic scenes and generally pessimistic, almost paranoid outlook on life appealed to Hopper, and the Hopper city has much in common with the noir city as articulated by Frank Krutnik's subtle reference to Marx:

Dark with something more than night, the noir city is a realm in which all that seemed solid melts into the shadows, and where the traumas and disjunctions experienced by individuals hint at a broader crisis of cultural self configuration engendered by urban America. (Krutnik, 1995: 99)

Film noir embodied and fed the anti-urban sentiments of increasingly suburbanized moviegoers through its depiction of cities as disorderly, corrupt, dark, abysmal, threatening, and most relevant to this essay, curiously empty. While many of Hopper's urban representations could be stills from a noir thriller, it is in Nighthawks where references to the noir city can be discerned with most ease – the strong theatrical light, the curiously empty streets, the mysterious figure with his back to us, the dark, forbidding spaces of the corner and buildings behind the diner. The title of the painting also suggests noir themes of people preying on others in the dark spaces of the unsafe city. The interlocking scripts of alienation, isolation, loneliness, fear, and a suggestion that something disorderly might occur outside immediately generated a sympathetic response from art critics and the public alike – the painting was soon recognized as an important American artifact and sold to the Art Institute of Chicago soon after its completion, where it remains today. Nighthawks also demonstrates a technique which Hopper used again and again in his work. He could have painted a far more threatening city, with more dubious characters, with litter on the streets, signs of crime, more suffering – yet he refrained, preferring to avoid extremities and thus 'suggesting' that these scenes might be around the corner by way of the emptiness of the cityscape. An empty city at night, captured at standstill, is always more threatening, more sinister, than an animated or extreme portrayal of urban fears.

Nighthawks is one of the most famous paintings in the history of American art, and has been reproduced on countless formats from coffee mugs to mouse mats. Levin perfectly described the painting as communicating a ''nocturnal urban disquiet;'' opening up Nighthawks to closer iconographic inspection exposes the symbolic meanings of the painting to cement its position as a landmark of twentieth century anti-urbanism. Like Sunday, it condenses (with a little more suspense) all Hopper's influences and views on modern cities into a single image. Broadly defined, then, Hopper's urban work is a joining of nineteenth-century transcendentalist beliefs with the tendency of Realists to document and interpret city scenes in a relentless quest for a hidden 'truth'. The products are 'stills' of the American city that evoke senses of loss, loneliness, and alienation – mournful commentaries on the unhappy material consequences of rampant, erosive modernity. Hopper's besmirchment of the entire modern age attracted attention because it appealed to the anti-urban imaginings of much of middle class America, most glaringly exhibited in the paranoia and angst that led to the mass evacuation of the central city known as 'white flight', and the clearance of 'slum' neighborhoods now known as 'urban renewal'.

Hopper's work also struck a chord with Americans seeking to express their nostalgic yearnings for past times and places – a desire to see something American, and by inference, something virtuous, in an idealized landscape being steadily eroded. The American landscape idealized by Emerson, Thoreau, and their many followers was disturbed by modernity's leading edge of urbanization, and in the visual arts it is the work of Edward Hopper that documents this process with the most regular and solemn introspection. Whether it was Hopper's intention to tap into the anti-urbanism of his viewers is open to debate, and indeed something we may never know, but there can be little doubt that Hopper 'fed' the American anti-urban imaginary with forlorn scenes (all of Hopper's places are in fact anonymous 'nonplaces') that speak volumes about pro rural, small town suspicions of the modern metropolis.


In his magisterial book Voices of Decline, Bob Beauregard (1993) traced what he called the ''discourse of decline'' affecting urban America following World War II and, like White and White 30 years earlier, concluded that the sheer volume of negative journalistic and intellectual representations of city life was inhibitive toward a sensible, sustained agenda of tackling America's urban problems. The ''100% Urban Proof '' Nissan Qashqai with which this article began is the latest example of that anti-urban discourse materialized – the message from Nissan is clear: don't bother solving problems in the urban jungle, just protect yourself from them in this tank! It is quite simply Nissan's reaction to an ever more extreme form of anti-urbanism penetrating cities in a time of heightened hysteria created by the 'War on Terror'. There is a term, 'urbicide' (coined by Marshall Berman to describe the destruction caused by 'urban renewal' in the Bronx in the 1960s, and used more recently by political urban geographers analyzing US and Israeli military tactics) to capture what happens when extreme anti-urbanism is taken to its logical conclusion. Discourses of urban fear, if left to grow and spread, can have these sorts of annihilation effects.

Derek Gregory has helpfully defined a discourse as:

the ways in which we communicate with one another, ythat vast network of signs, symbols, and practices through which we make our world(s) meaningful to ourselves and to others. (1994: 11)

One of the key contributions of post structuralist theory to human geography has been sustained attention to the ways in which discourses are laden with the power to affect social change, and in this case, to affect the way we think about urban places. Urban fears feed into policy from the right, but more recently, it has been argued that some respected leftist writers on urban affairs are implicated in reproducing this anti-urbanism discourse. Tom Angotti's scathing critique of Mike Davis' recent book Planet of Slums is notable for its observation that the book's apocalyptic rhetoric ''feeds into longstanding anti-urban fears about working people who live in cities,'' and the book itself is essentially a ''windshield survey of cities in the South by a stranger from the North.'' If Angotti is onto something here, then two lessons can be learned: first, that writers concerned about urban problems ignore entrenched anti-urbanism at their peril (they play into the hands of conservative political agendas if they do not think carefully about how they describe urban problems), and second, that intensive, long term ethnographic immersion coupled with sensitive analyses is a possible way to dispel anti-urbanism, and the worrying implications of widespread fear of the city.