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8 January 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 6:19am

How Edward Hopper became an artist for the pandemic age

Why we are all Nighthawks in the age of Covid.  

By Emily Tamkin

A woman and two men are seated at the bar in a diner. We can see from the lights outside and inside that it is night. Each one has a cup of coffee. The woman and one of the men sit close together, though, looking at them, it’s impossible to say whether they know each other or whether they just met. One man sits alone. The man behind the bar is fussing, as men working in bars and diners do, with something.

This is 1942’s Nighthawks, one of the most famous paintings by Edward Hopper, one of the most famous American painters.

Hopper lived from 1882 to 1967, but his paintings have an emotional resurgence today. As the world moved into 2021, the pandemic has come with it. Many Americans could not or chose not to see families and friends for the holidays, afraid that contact would spread the virus. We did not throw parties on New Year’s Eve, instead staying in our homes with our dinners and our countdown shows. We have spent the better part of a year like this: isolated.

Isolation is what Hopper’s paintings capture so well. In 1927’s Automat, a woman sits by herself at a small table. She already has her coffee, and, though there is another chair at the table, we cannot know if she is waiting for someone, or if that someone will ever arrive. 1930’s Early Sunday Morning shows a series of storefronts in the daytime, all dark, all empty. In Room in New York, painted in 1932, a woman and man sit in a room, together but also somehow apart. He’s reading a paper. Her back is mostly to him while she half-heartedly tinkers with the piano. In my personal favourites, Morning Sun from 1952 and Office in a Small City from 1953, a woman on a sun-kissed bed and a man in a small office, respectively, sit alone and stare out of their windows at the world, or at least the little parts of the world that they can see.

Hopper was far from an unknown artist when he was alive: the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art both purchased his works in the 1930s, and the Museum of Modern Art put on a retrospective of his work that same decade. In the years since his death, his celebrity status has lasted.

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[see also: How Edward McKnight Kauffer turned advertising into art]

In recent weeks, though, Hopper has received renewed attention. From October through this past weekend, ARTECHOUSE, which has exhibition spaces in New York and in Washington, DC, has put on a show reimagining Nighthawks. The artists, Noiland Collective, installed NHKS4220 Bar Illusion where the bars in the exhibition spaces had stood, and where people gathered before the pandemic. The painted figures were replaced by hologram-style projections. Viewers could stand at the installation’s central point and have their own forms projected into the piece. The artists said they saw a parallel between the painting’s world – the anxiety and apprehension of the Second World War – and our own.

They aren’t the only ones. Next month, Del Ray Artisans, a gallery in Alexandria, Virginia, is exhibiting “After Edward Hopper: Themes of Solitude and Isolation”, in which contemporary artists reimagine Hopper. In Kelly MacConomy’s Covid Nighthawks reimagined the diner is still there – but the woman, men and coffee cups within it are gone. It’s been emptied out for our times. As the gallery put it, “Artists present their interpretations of what makes Hopper’s imagery quintessentially American: perseverance, fortitude, diversity, and an egalitarian spirit in spite of adversity, impoverishment, and social injustice.”

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[see also: Why Epicureanism, not Stoicism, is the philosophy we need now]

Part of why artists are returning to Hopper, then, is that his work reminds us that we have endured hard times before. His creations were set in an era that was frightening, fearsome and lonely, like ours. But here we are, decades later, looking back.

Furthermore, his paintings also often suggest connectedness, even in the midst of isolation. The woman in Automat may have felt like she was the only woman ever to sit alone at a table in public, but she wasn’t, of course. The painting works for me because the experience is at once unique to the woman in the painting and a common occurrence. The reason I like Morning Sun and Office in a Small City so much is that, taken apart, they show individuals isolated from the rest of the world, but taken together, they show how alike we are. We are common in our loneliness.

The thought makes me feel a little less lonely. I want to run into Morning Sun’s frame and tell the woman on her bed not to worry. If she just waits a year, a man will sit in an office in a small city and do the very same thing she’s doing now. And since I can’t, I instead tell myself that people all over the country and the world are doing what I’m doing. That I am keeping myself apart, and in doing so am connecting myself to a larger whole.

The twist in staring too long at Hopper in the era of Covid-19 is that you see not only the similarities between then and now, but the differences. This year, I don’t only relate to the loneliness of the figures in Nighthawks, I also envy them. Unlike us, they can safely meet strangers in diners and bars. Of all the things I used to feel looking at Hopper’s paintings, longing was never one of them.

[see also: Atkinson Grimshaw’s glistening landscapes of Victorian prosperity]