With the “current situation,” museums all over the world are inviting art lovers to explore their collections online. I found myself looking through the collection at The Art Institute of Chicago, a museum that I have visited many times since childhood.
Of all the iconic paintings at the AIC, Hopper’s Nighthawks has always been a favorite of mine. Hopper’s work often has a voyeuristic, romantic quality. But how does Hopper pull this off?
Looking at Nighthawks, we see that the composition is full of squares and right angles, which contrast nicely with the organic shape of the soda counter. There is also a hum of energy in this painting that is created by pattern and repetition. We see a line of the counter stools drift the painting in a diagonal line from right to left, while the pattern of the windows in the building next door come in right to left.
But, in my opinion, what really makes this painting so intriguing is Hopper’s use of value, hue, and chroma/intensity. Notice how the back wall of the cafe is a stark bright yellow that captures the coldness of fluorescent lighting and contrasted with the dark, deep blue of the window. That dark blue of the plate glass window is across from an orange door with a tiny blue window, drawing the viewer’s eyes across the interior of the dinner. The interior scene is grounded by the reddish-brown counter, a color that is echoed in the brick facade of the building across the street. The shadows on the buildings are a deep blue-green that makes them recede, while a yellow, green and blue light from the diner spills out onto the sidewalk. All of these techniques create inside/outside dynamic that places the viewer outside the scene as a voyeur, and simultaneously creates a sense of alienation that is moody and romantic.
If you are a fan of Hopper’s style, you might want to look into a contemporary artist we have featured before, Caroline Walker. A Scottish artist, Caroline Walker uses many of the same techniques to a similar effect, but her subject matter is drawn from both the lives of working women in London to posh domestic scenes in Southern California.
In the image above, Walker uses a complementary blue/orange palette to dramatic effect. The bright orange glow of the interior creates a cozy sense of warmth, while the moody blue of the exterior frame evokes a calm serenity of a warm summer evening.
In the image above, Walker places the viewer squarely as an observer of the quiet drama within a hair salon. Like Nighthawks, this painting paradoxically evokes both a sense of both intimacy and anonymity.
In this final example of Walker’s work, the incandescent lighting in the family room spills out on the terrace drawing our eyes to two figures: one inside the house, and the other reading across from the pool. I love how the hard lines of the midcentury architecture contrast with the organic shape of the mountains and the foliage.
Walker is an internationally renowned artist and a discussion of how her work addresses the role of contemporary women in a variety of social contexts has been explored in a monograph called Picture Windows which includes over 170 images of her work.
Note: This post may contain affiliate links.