Nighthawks, 1942, oil on canvas
Hopper's works present a strong front of "American sensibility," but they also portray a stark sense of isolation, loneliness, and eerie individualism. As a result of these attributes, his works came to characterize the Great Depression period (though the artist himself managed to avoid the economic hardship of the time).
Born in New York in 1882, Hopper used New England and New York as some of his primary landscapes. One of his greatest influences was Robert Henri, the mentor under whom he studied. Other influences include de Goya, Velazquez, Manet, and several other classically realist artists. Though Hopper took several trips to Europe at the beginning of his career, he was never influenced by the rise of cubism and abstraction that seemed to characterize the works of his contemporaries.
Check out some of my favorites:
New York Movie, 1939, oil on canvas
Chop Suey, 1929, oil on canvas
Prospect Street, Gloucester, 1928, watercolor on paper
Summer Evening, 1947, oil on canvas
House by the Railroad, 1925, oil on canvas
Ok, so maybe I had a hard time picking just a few favorites. But if you look at all of these paintings, including the landscapes and the streescapes, what's interesting is that the subject isn't actually the house or the people depicted. There's a sense that the atmosphere—the mood itself—is the real subject. I especially like that the style is a rougher kind of realism. Even in the watercolor painting, there's a scratchiness, a kind of expression in the strokes that makes these paintings a little less severe. The last painting depicted, House by the Railroad, is considered Hopper's first "mature" painting, which truly expresses the themes and style that came to inspire each of his subsequent works. His use of architectural elements to create strong lines in his images lends to the overall sense of structure and, often, vacuity that makes use of the physical space to express the metaphysical.
If you've ever been to New York (or any large city, for that matter), you might understand why I love these images. Yes, there's a sense of isolation and loneliness in Hopper's paintings. But there's also a sense of the familiar, the concrete. It's this dual sensitivity to the comforts (and confines) of an ordinary setting, and the feeling that one can be lonely (even in a crowded room) that makes these paintings so irresistibly familiar to us all. Consider his street scenes and landscapes, too. These serve as representations of his mastery of the use of sunlight: he illuminates just enough...and then allows you to focus on the shadows, too.
Hopper said that he didn't see how some of his paintings, especially Nighthawks, could really be that lonely. He simply thought he was, perhaps unconsciously, painting the sense of individuality and isolation that comes from living in a big city. He came to be known as the artist that could provide a physical representation of loneliness and boredom. Of his own work, though, Hopper once said that though he never tried to paint the "American Scene," he was always trying to "paint himself."