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Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche

Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche

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by Gordon Theisen

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A fascinating study of Edward Hopper's iconic Nighthawks painting and its deep significance for understanding American culture.

Staying up Much Too Late discusses the painting Nighthawks and the painter Edward Hopper and their central importance to twentieth-century American culture. Topics include individualism, New York City, Arthur


A fascinating study of Edward Hopper's iconic Nighthawks painting and its deep significance for understanding American culture.

Staying up Much Too Late discusses the painting Nighthawks and the painter Edward Hopper and their central importance to twentieth-century American culture. Topics include individualism, New York City, Arthur "Weegee" Fellig, diners, pornography, capitalism, advertising, cigarettes, American philosophy, World War II, Gravity's Rainbow, Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, Russ Meyer, R. Crumb, David Lynch, and film noir

What links these together is the painting's pessimistic take on American culture, which it also seems to epitomize. Despite its desolate feel, Nighthawks has become a familiar icon, reproduced on posters and postcards, in movies and on television shows. But Nighthawks is more than just a masterful painting. It is a portal into that rarely acknowledged but pervasive dark side of the American psyche.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hopper's Nighthawks is one of the most iconic images in 20th-century art, but Theisen's analysis of the "desolate, alien, denatured, perverse, [and] desperate" masterpiece is too facile to support all the cultural weight he wants to place upon it. The interpretations veer between the obvious (he characterizes the urban setting as representing an absence of nature) and the bizarre (he imagines the painting's four figures engaging in group sex). Some sections add flashes of insight like a discussion of Hopper's familiarity with commercial illustration that segues into the influence of Warhol's Pop but in trying to make Hopper resonate with everything from cool jazz to Robert Crumb's underground comics, Theisen overreaches and occasionally stumbles. Discussing film noir, for example, he dwells on the "movie screen-like proportions" of Nighthawks, although Hopper completed the painting a decade before the introduction of wide-screen projection. At times, the fledgling critic can't seem to make up his mind: is the uniform menu of the diner supposed to be depersonalizing, as he suggests in one chapter, or subversively democratic? As Theisen meanders through his checklist of cultural pessimism, some readers may conclude that Nighthawks is better off letting its powerful imagery speak for itself. 8-page color insert. (July) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Musings on the famous "diner" painting and its place in American culture. Stick with the painting. Shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Edward Hopper began his most famous work, Nighthawks. The painting depicts three customers, a couple and a lone man, seated in a nondescript New York diner being waited on by a single attendant. It's unquestionably an icon of American art, but debut author Theisen's attempt to define the painting's cultural significance proves to be a case of overkill. His rambling commentary is filled with hazy logic and questionable conclusions-at one point, he suggests that the customers may be preparing to rob the diner. Offering background on virtually any topic that has even marginal relevance to Hopper's work, the author provides, among other things, the history of cigars, of diners, of cigarettes, even of coffee. He also slips in plot outlines of films and novels that he considers relevant, from Taxi Driver and The Asphalt Jungle to Moby-Dick and The Executioner's Song. Most of these comparisons veer between the obvious and the ludicrous, and almost all convey the unmistakable whiff of pedantry. The exercise would be more bearable if Theisen were a skillful writer. But his choppy, awkward and occasionally ungrammatical prose makes for difficult and tedious reading. To wit: "Travis buys a bunch of guns on the black market and tries to save a twelve-year-old prostitute named Iris whom he's befriended by going on a rampage, murdering her pimp and two other men." Here and there, the author does offer an intriguing tidbit: There were 312 bicycle manufacturers in the U.S. in 1890; Henry Ford wouldn't hire smokers. Theisen also makes some worthwhile points whendiscussing Hopper and film noir, a genre the artist apparently admired. An overreaching microanalysis that will try the patience of even the most diehard art lover.
From the Publisher
Advance Praise for STAYING UP MUCH TOO LATE:

"A personal meditation on Hopper's most famous painting, Staying Up Much Too Late should introduce Gordon Theisen as exactly what he is: one of the true originals in American letters. In Staying Up Much Too Late Gordon Theisen dismantles the American Dream like a savvy child patiently unscrewing an Erector set Shangri-la. He begins by skewering American optimism, ends with a hymn of praise to un-American pessimism, and in between demonstrates convincingly that Edward Hopper's great painting Nighthawks is imbued with the underhistory of America. We live in the loneliest country on Earth, Theisen tells us, and his darkly vivid language, like Hopper's brushwork, renders it with deadpan accuracy. What a lovely book."

—John Vernon, author of A Book of Reasons

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St. Martin's Press
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Chapter One

The Making of the Painting or How to Be a Stranger in Your Own Land

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

1. The Artist

Edward Hopper began Nighthawks in December 1941, shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. How difficult to imagine: like photographing a flower garden on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, not because a flower garden expressed certain feelings about the cataclysmic events of that morning, but because photographing flower gardens is your thing, is what you would have done anyway. While the country as a whole, pretty much overnight, committed itself to total war, "Ed," as his wife, Josephine "Jo" Hopper, recorded in her journal, "refused to take any interest in our very likely prospect of being bombed ... He's doing a new canvas and simply can't be interrupted."

Come what may, devotion to a self-imposed task evokes the archetypal American hero: Think of John Wayne in John Ford's 1956 classic western, The Searchers, striding across an arid Texas landscape for seven long years in quest of Scar, the Comanche who kidnapped and ravished his niece. He has put all else aside, cares only about doing what he knows is one absolutely right thing to do. Or think of Raymond Chandler's obstinately moral private detective, Philip Marlowe, who takes on cases with little chance of payment---he may even refuse payment because he cannot be bought, committed as he is to the interests of his client (even when that so-called client hasn't actually hired him or attempts to halt his investigation). He gets a job done and done well because it is his duty, however ridiculous he seems when everyone else is for sale because that's the best way to get by. So the fifty-nine-year-old Hopper, World War or no World War, meticulously developed a scene based on a Greenwich Avenue restaurant that he spotted during one of his meandering strolls through lower Manhattan.

He had labored in obscurity for some two decades following his graduation from the New York School of Art in 1906, supporting himself by illustrating advertisements, magazine articles, and movie posters. He despised this work and refused to do it more than three days per week to save time for his more personal artistic endeavors, but received scant attention for the few group shows he participated in. He was invited to contribute to the "Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Contemporary American Artists" in 1908, along with such up-and-comers as George Bellows and Rockwell Kent. But while the other artists displayed American views, Hopper---somewhat perversely, given the exhibition's stated theme---chose to display paintings inspired by a recent sojourn in Europe (mainly Paris), where he had traveled to visit museums and round out his education. He was duly ignored by the press. Not quite unjustly: The work was too derivative of French impressionism, which he greatly admired. Perhaps he needed the failure, the ensuing isolation, to keep to his own course, mature his style, and find his artistic identity.

He made some notable breakthroughs. The massive (36;dp ;ts 72;dp near-masterpiece, Soir Bleu (1914), which portrays a voluptuous, heavily made-up prostitute surveying the customers in a Parisian café‚ through narrowed eyes. She might be a demon searching for a soul worth stealing, and presages Hopper's career-long fascination with the enticements of very shapely women. New York Corner (1913) shows a group of faceless men in black hats and overcoats milling in front of a corner saloon on a gray, wintry day, the ice blue silhouette of a factory in the distance. At once ordinary and desolate, the painting won him some early praise when exhibited in 1915.

Wider recognition did not come until 1923, when he exhibited a series of brilliant watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum, done in and around the picturesque town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. These paintings dovetailed nicely with critics' increasing interest in often idealized American settings done in a plainly realistic (i.e., not avant-garde, not European, and hold the flourishes) style. Now in his forties, Hopper suddenly achieved renown as a portrayer of the "American scene." In 1930, the Whitney Museum of American Art paid the then-impressive sum of $3,000 for Early Sunday Morning (1930). This aggressively mundane, if sunny, depiction of a block-long redbrick row building with a barber pole, fire hydrant, and a strip of pale blue sky above but no people in sight, makes for a vision so silent and still it suggests some mysterious vitality, the existence of which we are but latently aware and cannot name.

Hopper's reputation grew. In 1933, the Museum of Modern Art hosted his first retrospective. But recognition, even on this scale, did not compromise what critic Lloyd Goodrich called Hopper's "unwavering integrity" and "consistency," his almost defiant sense of himself as cleaving to a singular vocation, however propitious (or not) the trends might be. He would not give in to the art market any more than he gave in to the market for commercial illustration, which he would never again resort to. He continued to work slowly, completing only a few oils per year, always waiting until he was certain he had a fresh idea and would not be repeating himself. And he continued to spend a long time on each canvas, thinking a project through thoroughly before stubbornly painting and repainting, until he got precisely the intended effect (he liked working in oil, he said, because it facilitated "corrections and changes"). As the Great Depression continued, sales dropped off, and he faced financial strain, Hopper seemed to become even more selective, more afraid of simply coasting, of having nothing left to say.

When Hopper did get going again, it was 1940, the war in Europe took up much of the public's attention---Germany conquered France in June of that year---but he was entering arguably the most powerful phase of his career. Six weeks after Pearl Harbor, he completed what critics often point to as his most accomplished painting, one the artist himself counted as a favorite. Nighthawks, unlike many twentieth-century masterpieces, has won admiration from those who champion the often inaccessible experiments that make up much of modern art as well as those that do not. This is in many respects a deeply cold and alien work, despite its immediately recognizable subject matter: a nameless, nondescript diner late at night.

Copyright © 2006 by Gordon Theisen

Meet the Author

GORDON THEISEN was born in Queens, New York. He has worked as a landscaper, dishwasher, barback, cashier, library clerk, construction worker, telemarketer, taxi driver, teacher, proofreader, and freelance writer. He holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the State University of New York at Binghamton. He lives in Carrboro, North Carolina, with his wife, two-year-old son, and his wife's cat.

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Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Edward Hopper's paintings, well known to almost everyone in this country, are unique in that they convey a sense of loneliness, yearning, suggestions of dark thoughts, pessimism, and hopelessness - not exactly the moods one would want to examine on a daily basis, but certainly painterly images that cause us to pause when we encounter them in museums and collections. Gordon Theisen is a fine writer and in this book STAYING UP MUCH TOO LATE: EDWARD HOPPOER'S 'NIGHTHAWKS' AND THE DARK SIDE OF THE AMERICAN PSYCHE he manages to successfully use the famous night diner painting of the artist to address the current mental state of affairs seeping into our consciousness. He wisely covers every aspect of the artist's life and work, giving us the necessary details of his life and his idiomatic stance in American art, spreads those ideas into his output thus assuring us that the one painting of the title is not an isolated image, and then begins to apply his ideas to our cultural status - at times not comfortable, but always creatively informative. If Thiesen strays a bit too far from his title subject, drawing on his own interpretation of concepts he perceives as more than just legitimate diversions, then he can be forgiven by the reader who want more from an author than a term paper presentation. Thiesen indulges in reminiscing about our cultural icons such as diners, cigarettes, coffee, plastic, jazz, war, sex, film noir, and personality disintegration in a time of easy drugs AKA medications. Perhaps these are topics many would not elect to explore, but then they are bookmarks to the greater understanding of where our current culture stands. If indeed our artists are our shamans then Hopper as Thiesen presents him is a prophet of sorts. Not that the book is depressing as the Nighthawks painting: Thiesen has the good will to engage us in the positive aspects of all of the negatives listed above. There is humor here, but it is humor with an edge. This book, along with other contemporary 'paintings as examples of current thought' books by such authors as Biel and van Hensbergen in their evaluations of Grant Woods' American Gothic and Picasso's Guernica, once again proves that art gives us more than visual delight: art gives us valuable food for thought...and change. Grady Harp
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My own recommendations: Hunger Games by Suzanne Colins; the Warriors series by Erin Hunter; Wolves of the Beyond by Kathryn Lasky; Virals by Kathy Reichs; Pendragon by D.J. MacHale; Morpheus Road by D.J. MacHale; Black Waters by Maija something; Shadow Games (can't remember the author's name; the cover has four silhouettes); Desperation by Stephen King; The Regulators by Richard Bachman. Others' recommendations I've seen: Fablehaven by Brandon Mull; Leven Thumps by Obert Skye; a series I can't remember the name of by Eoin Colfer. Hope this and taurine help you stay up all night!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im looking for a book that will help me stay up late have any ideas.