Is It Possible for an Artist To Be Original? Yes and No.
Lessons from looking at Edward Hopper's 1942 painting Nighthawks.
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942). Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago. Via Wikimedia Commons.
You might recognise this artwork. It’s by the painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who is one of America’s best-known 20th century artists. Nighthawks, painted in 1942, is his most famous work. It’s an iconic representation of the idea of the alienation and loneliness of modern urban life. But is it original? Yes and no.
Artists are always looking back, and borrowing from each other. Of course styles are reinterpreted, techniques and ideas are developed in fresh and unique ways. But there are always overlaps and connecting dots. Sometimes the paths are clear, where an artist has openly acknowledged that they took inspiration from such-and-such artist. At other times what links two artists is not immediately obvious.
I recently went to see an exhibition of the work of the British painter Walter Sickert (1860-1942) at Tate Britain in London. He is best known for his work from the decades around the turn of the 20th century. What really stood out for me in this survey of Sickert’s career is just how much art is an ongoing conversation between artists across time.
I’m not sure whether Edward Hopper ever saw Walter Sickert’s work. But there are a lot of similarities between the two artists even though they were working at different times and in different geographical locations. Here’s an example of that.
Walter Sickert, Nuit d’Amour (1920). Oil on Canvas. Manchester Art Gallery.
This is a painting by Walter Sickert called Nuit d’Amour from 1920. The Night of Love. It is a bustling Parisian restaurant scene set in the dark of the night. You can almost hear the music of that violin player and feel the close, hot atmosphere in the room. We are spectators standing in the cool of the darkness on the outside, looking in.
It shows a lot of influence from the French impressionists. Sickert’s loose handling of paint, for example. There’s no clear definition of line. And it’s a rather lovely study of the leisure activities of modern urban life, a subject that the French impressionists were also interested in.
Sickert was really interested in exploring the effects of light in his paintings, and you can see that here in the contrast between the brightly lit interior and the darkness of the street in the foreground. There’s a shaft of light coming down from the right hand side which illuminates part of the dark green façade of the building.
This is not a painting I had seen before the Sickert exhibition. But it immediately brought to my mind Hopper’s Nighthawks. Like Sickert’s painting Nighthawks is a night-time scene, and the viewer is in the darkness outside looking into a brightly lit restaurant. But it is set in a diner in New York in the 1940s rather than a Paris street in 1920.
Also like Sickert’s Nuit d’Amour, it's a painting about light. The contrast in colours in Hopper’s work highlights the difference between the brightness of the inside of the diner and the darkness of the street outside. And it focuses our attention on the figures in the image. We start to think about the relationship – or lack of relationship – between those people. There is something distant and vacant about them. They are in the same space, close together, but not communicating. Even though it’s a quiet scene, it is heavy with atmosphere.
The man on the left sits alone with his back to us. His dark blue suit and hat almost blend into the darkness beyond. What’s he doing there alone? The couple on the right look bored. The woman examines her nails, the man stares blankly, lost in his own thoughts. There’s a sort of insomniac urban loneliness communicated in this painting. They are all together, but alone.
And that idea reminds me of this painting by Walter Sickert, Ennui. It was painted in 1914. It’s a portrait of a married couple. The woman is staring at the wall. And the man sits smoking at the table with glazed-over eyes. They seem bored, disconnected.
Walter Sickert, Ennui (1914). Oil on canvas. Tate Collection. Via Wikimedia Commons.
And that image reminds me of this one, The Absinthe Drinkers by the French impressionist artist Edgar Degas painted 40 years earlier in 1876.
Edgar Degas, The Absinthe Drinkers (1876). Oil on canvas. Musee d’Orsay. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A woman and a man sitting side by side in a restaurant, disconnected. There’s a loneliness in this woman’s empty stare. You might say it’s a study of the human experience of our modern, urban world.
What connects Hopper and Sickert, what runs through both of their work, is late nineteenth-century French art. We know that Sickert was friends with Degas, and was hugely influenced by the French impressionists. And we know that Hopper came to Paris in 1906 to study French art.
It’s all a conversation. Borrowing. Reinterpreting. Nudging forward. Looking back. Hybridity. A bit of this. A bit of that. All art is a new take on what has gone before.
Over the paywall jump: a treasure trove on this topic of originality in art: I talk about the artist/designer Virgil Abloh and his 3% rule; Maurizio Cattelan’s banana, Bill Viola and more! Plus join the community and let us know your thoughts!