My favourite painting: John Lilleyman

'I have always been intrigued by Hopper’s pictures of people, particularly in this, his most famous work.'

Nighthawks, 1942, by Edward Hopper (1882–1967), 33 1⁄8in by 60in, Art Institute Chicago, USA

John Lilleyman says:
I have always been intrigued by Hopper’s pictures of people, particularly in this, his most famous work, where the characters seem to step straight out of the Raymond Chandler novels I devoured as a schoolboy. What is going on? That lone customer must be Philip Marlowe, but who are the other two and why are they there? We look at the bright interior and the dark street. Where is this place? What time is it? What happens next? (Don’t ask Banksy).

Sir John Lilleyman is a retired professor of paediatric haematology and oncology and past president of the Royal College of Pathologists and the Royal Society of Medicine

John McEwen comments on Nighthawks:
In 1927, Edward Hopper wrote: ‘American art should be weaned from its French mother’ and create something ‘native and distinct’. Nighthawks was his most famous contribution to this end.

He was born at Nyack, on the Hudson River, into a devoutly Baptist family, his father a dry-goods store owner. A facility for drawing destined him for art, but his parents insisted he train as an illustrator before attending the New York School of Art, where he proved to be a star student. His favourite teacher was Robert Henri, who said art should be ‘an expression of life’ and ‘high art gives the feel of the night’.

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Henri led the way in establishing American Social Realism; nevertheless, he urged his pupils to study the European masters first hand. Hopper duly based himself in Paris, which he loved. ‘It took me ten years to get over Europe,’ he said. After 1910, he never returned, earning his living in New York as an illustrator, while reserving half the week for his own art.

In 1924, he married Jo Nivison, a kindred romantic spirit and fellow artist, and had his second exhibition, a success that enabled him to give up illustrating. They lived frugally and didn’t have children. In 1933, he had a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Nighthawks was painted just as America went to war. It was inspired by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, New York. Hopper disliked artistic explanation and thought critics made too much of ‘loneliness’ in his pictures. However, he did admit that, in Nighthawks, ‘unconsciously, probably’, he painted ‘the loneliness of a large city’.


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