Drawings at the Whitney reveal the step-by-step process the artist used to create his iconic painting of a New York diner at night
Sometime in 1941 or ’42, Edward Hopper, who liked to prowl New York City with a handheld sketchbook, lingered in a diner, making studies of a man wearing a suit and a fedora.
He made a few quick frontal studies of figures sitting at the counter.
He sketched one figure, seen from behind, several times.
With quick strokes, Hopper captured the man as he moved: the variations in the tilt of the head, the press of the body against the counter, the play of light on the jacket.
The man, seen in just slightly more profile, is an early and close relation to the painted version in Nighthawks, Hopper’s melancholy, suggestive, much-parodied 1942 masterpiece that is surely the most famous diner scene in art history. (The tableware made it into the picture, too.)
These drawings are among 19 studies for Nighthawks, brought together for the first time, in a revelatory show now at the Whitney. “Hopper Drawing” deploys 200 Hopper drawings—part of a trove of 2,500 bequeathed by the artist’s widow, Josephine—to showcase the role of drawing throughout his career, from his life drawing classes at the New York School of Art in the early 1900s, to his travels in Europe and Paris from 1906 to 1910, to the studies he made at the Whitney Studio Club and beyond. (After closing at the Whitney on October 6, the show will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Walker Art Center.)
The main and spectacular focus of the show is the series of preparatory drawings Hopper made for his large oil paintings. “Hopper Drawing” includes seven sections pairing well-known canvases including Soir Bleu (1914), Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928), From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), Early Sunday Morning (1930), New York Movie (1939), and Office at Night (1940), with the studies that document their step-by-step evolution.
Hopper, who started signing and dating his drawings at the age of ten and went on to make thousands more until his death in 1967, would have found the very idea of the show befuddling.
Not because it took almost a half century after his death for any museum to focus a major exhibition on his drawings.
But because a museum is showing his drawings at all.
Hopper generally didn’t consider his drawings as art objects that should be exhibited or sold. To him, they were simply studio materials—documents of the process he used to conceive and to plot, in minute detail, the stories he told on his canvases.
The Nighthawks drawings reveal how Hopper choreographed his voyeuristic scene of the nighttime convergence of the man, a couple, and a server in the eerie Deco diner, refining every nuance of the countertop, the figures, the architecture, and the effects of the fluorescent lighting.
The diner first emerges in a compositional study with just a few slightly diagonal lines intersected by short verticals—just the essence of the painting’s spatial conception.
But also present is a serpentine leg of one of the coffee urns, in the upper center. “This marvelous demonstration of both extreme specificity and near abstract compositional summation on the same surface beguilingly reflects how empirical observation and imagination coexisted in Hopper’s head,” curator Carter E. Foster writes in the catalogue.
In other studies, the viewpoint moves to just outside the scene. The format becomes more horizontal. The figures appear in their places: the man in the fedora with his back to us; the couple across the counter; the stooped-over server.
In one drawing (below right), we see the emergence of the glowing wedge—highlighting the diner’s modernist lines against the 19th-century brick streetscape—that Roberta Smith describes in her recent review of “Hopper Drawing” as “really the picture’s main character.”
Here, says Foster, the artist tackled, “perhaps for the first time, the way in which light and dark would play out to underscore the dichotomy of inside and out. Perhaps this was even when he decided to make the painting a night scene, for the swath of chalk that shades the upper left corner—applied broadly with the side of the stick—adds that extra bit of darkness, effectively turning on the interior light in the diner (actually nothing but the reserve of the paper) seen through the large window.”
In other studies, made on higher-quality paper than the others, Hopper refined the figures—the tilt of their heads, the angle of their bodies, the way light falls on their skin and clothing. His wife, Jo, posed for the female figures. Hopper himself posed for the males—presumably using double mirrors so he could see himself.
Continuing his studies of the lone male figure, Hopper worked in “firm, linear strokes with the tip of the chalk and nuanced shading achieved with stumping and blending,” Foster writes. The artist develops the three-quarter view seen in the painting, with the right side of the face just visible. The light sketch on the bottom of one page (upside-down to the main image) shows a change in the way his head tilts—“a slight difference,” notes Foster, “but one Hopper considered carefully.”
Another sheet shows studies of Jo Hopper’s arms. A study of her right hand holding a cigarette evolved into the man’s hand in the painting, the one closest to touching the woman—“a spot with a tense undercurrent of suggestion,” as Foster puts it.
After years of search and scholarship, experts have determined that Nighthawks was not inspired by one specific diner. Rather, it was a composite of wedge-shaped intersections around Greenwich Avenue. Its curving prow seems partly inspired by the Flatiron Building.
In the final drawing, the couple turns to face each other.
In the finished oil painting, Hopper has opened up the perspective, adding an area of ceiling painted pale yellow. We now see the tops of the stools. More of the countertop is visible, its continuous surface connecting the characters in a way they weren’t before.
The arms and hands of the couple emerge in the final painting, too. (It’s impossible to tell what the woman is holding—it might be a sandwich, it might be cash, or it might be a pack of Lucky Strikes.)
Now, though, these figures are not as close as they were in the final study. “If Hopper’s paintings are an art of silence,” Foster writes, “much is told through nuance of gesture and body.”