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American’s favorite painting is not a pretty picture

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks
The Art Institute of Chicago

What painting best celebrates art in America?

There were 58 answers to that question, which was posed on an online poll by The paintings of choice will be digitized and shown in bus shelters, subways, airports and movie theaters throughout the country – 50,000 spaces in all – Aug. 4 to 31.

The painting that won the most votes was Edward Hopper’s portrait of aloneness and disaffection called “Nighthawks.” This first place win says more about American’s state of mind at the moment than it does about their taste in art.

Hopper would probably agree. In a catalog for a show of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, he wrote, “In general it can be said that a nation’s art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people.”

“Nighthawks” certainly fills the bill. The impassive look of bored, sad figures, which underlines their isolation and alienation from themselves and the world around them, is the story of our rootless time.

Hopper died nearly 50 years ago, but “Nighthawks” makes clear that he was feeling pretty grim back then. This was also evident in Gail Levin bio “Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist” when she recounts how New York-born Hopper was overwhelmed by New Mexico’s natural scenery. For days he wandered around, unable to paint until he came across an abandoned locomotive. Clearly, the discarded and the forlorn held more meaning for him than the picturesque.

America’s preference for “Nighthawks,” even over the normally popular Impressionist paintings of Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam, also makes plain that Hopper was not alone in his view that technical innovations in art, like Impressionism, didn’t do much to assist an artist’s “interpretative power.”

“If the technical innovations of the Impressionists led merely to a more accurate representation of nature, it was perhaps of not much value in enlarging their powers of expression.”

Demonstrations of feeling not only defined art for Hopper, but for his countrymen as well. Not even a rendition of Mickey Mouse by Roy Lichtenstein could turn America’s heads from “Nighthawks.”

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