In 1970, board game maker Parker Brothers introduced Masterpiece, in which players vied for famous works of art at auction. In the 1976 edition, the works came from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, including Vincent van Gogh’s “Self Portrait,” Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” For a child, seeing them for the first time in a game and being told they were masterpieces was a dime-store education – and the game be damned. We just want to stare at those mysterious laminated picture cards.
You may have seen “Nighthawks” making the rounds lately on social media. The original shows a diner at night through a plate glass window. One customer has his back to the viewer and two others seem to be engaging a counter worker, suspended in the ceiling light within while shadows deepen the streets outside. The new version, for an age of coronavirus, shows the interior depopulated, everything, including the coffee urns, gone; and now all is rendered in a pale green-gray monochrome. It is eloquent but one of the odd things about this turn is that Hopper was not exactly a painter of conviviality before. He might be the first artist of social distancing.
When we think of urban alienation, of being alone in a crowd, we are thinking of Hopper, too, who was born in Nyack, a village about 20 miles north of New York City, in 1882. By the age of 11 he was an accomplished draftsmen, capturing the play of light and shadow in charcoal. He went down to the city to study art and was imbued with America’s metropolis at the turn of the last century. He drew street scenes, cafés, theaters and offices, which he turned into paintings with exquisite emptinesses.
One of his masterpieces, “Early Sunday Morning,” from 1930, in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City (which is closed for the pandemic), is handsomely reproduced on the museum’s website. It is a large work for Hopper, who favored intimate scales; nearly five feet wide and three feet tall, showing a slice of storefronts on New York’s Seventh Avenue. The windows in the red facade of the second story have yellow shades and white curtains in varying rectangles; the man who disdained modernism is commenting slyly on it. And there’s not a soul around.
Hopper and his wife lived for most of their lives in the city, on the top floor of a townhouse on Washington Square. He often went to the movies at the Sheridan Theatre, in the West Village, and in 1937 painted a scene of its interior. We see deeply shadowed recesses; two figures, one of them a uniformed usher, away on the far left; and in the foreground a solitary, voluptuous woman in a white blouse and a luminously red skirt, her back to us, doubly alone in the light.
Three years later, Hopper found just what he wanted in light and solitude. He had been drawn to illuminated gas station signs, which were lit above the pumps in circles or squares. But in the city, gas stations only turned their signs on at night, to save on electricity. He wanted the look of electrical illumination at dusk, against deepening shadow and a muted sky, and found it in a composite of stations that, to judge from “Gas,” were on a parkway in the Hudson Valley.
Look at the upper right of the painting, where the blue leaches from the evening into the green-black shadows of the road ahead, and the witty line of the red pumps – and then to the lone attendant, not a customer in sight, stranded in the serenity of the light from inside. That is the art of distance.