Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Today Edward Hopper is regarded as one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. Best known to the casual fan for 'Nighthawks' and 'Early Sunday Morning', Hopper is praised for his ability to affective use light to convey deep messages. the subtle poses and restrained realism of his figures would seem rather dull if not for his bathing them in bright lights shining in or the darkness that surrounds. When scrolling through his catalogue of work there is a piece from early in his career that sticks out like a sore thumb. I get stuck on it every time and to most of your surprise would consider it my favorite work by the artist. 'Blue Night' (1914) comes some three decades before 'Nighthawks' but I believe it lays the groundwork and hints toward the longstanding career of the truly masterful Edward Hopper.
Immediately I'm fixated on this clown guy. As if a spotlight is directed at him, Hopper is still working out the kinks of lighting a character in a way that evokes emotional response. The blunt relationship of the clown to the light has a much different feel than later works where characters are bathed in light. It feels harsh. Harshness reflected in the judging stares of the patrons surrounding the clown. He is out of place. Doesn't belong. I love the subtle expressions in the faces of the figures. With the simplest angle of a mouth or direction of eyes Hopper tells us so much about the situation and the feeling in the room. It is unsettling. The five characters situated around the clown stare at him. He gazes down in order to not make eye contact and go about his business, smoking a cigarette. In the clowns's face I don't get a shameful feeling. Rather I see stubbornness. An amount of self acceptance and refusal to change. The clown is sure he belongs.
Adding to the unsettling nature is the use of primary colors. It isn't often that we see such a reactive color palette from Hopper. Often times the colors work much more in tandem and the focus is placed on the lighting. In 'Blue Night' we see wash of dull blue interrupted by hits on red and yellow. The yellow falls between the blue and red in chroma. Hopper uses it to frame the focal point of interest. As your eyes bounce toward the center the reds act as stepping stones leading to the eyes and subtle grin of the clowns mouth. Like a bullseyes marking the action of smoking his cigarette, the clown lay stake to his claim of belonging in that cafe.
It is interesting to see a painter who would later becoming the master of subtlety, in his amateur stage. Experimenting with how direct to be with symbols and expression. While this piece is only described as a figurative study it feels like Hopper is too making is claim. Stubbornly marking his place in the American realist movement. Even though his work lacks the realistic detail of his contemporaries at the time. He is comfortable with his restrained sense of depicting life and is here to stay no matter the crowds response.