The Horror in Oils

Sometimes the most terrifying things in life come not from horror novels or scary movies, but from the ordinary, everyday grind of life itself.  One form of madness is actually a clarity of thought that lets one see the truth behind all the lies we weave to keep our sanity.  Sometimes artists can pierce that silken veil and show us truth.  When they do, we call them masters.

Edward Hopper is one of those masters. Born July 22, 1882, Hopper was an American realist at a time when surrealism and cubism were at their peak.  People were looking for new ways to view the world, and Hopper’s work might have seemed dull by comparison.  But he had something the post-modern artists lacked.  He saw truth and painted it for all to see.

His most famous work is Nighthawks, painted in 1942.  It’s been the inspiration for dozens of imitations and even been recreated in film.  However, rarely do people seem to understand the horror of this work.  The diner is an oasis of light against the dark, but it is not the focus of the painting. Instead, the darkness surrounding the diner is the true subject, the gloomy doorways, the shadowed windows, as if anyone or anything could be watching.

Nighthawks (1942)

Another work, less famous in and of itself but instantly recognizable, is House by the Railroad.  See if you recognize it:

House by the Railroad (1925)

Look familiar?  It’s the basis of the Bates family home in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the Munster’s house.  It’s the archetypal haunted house.  Hopper captured in a simple, daytime painting all the Gothic wonder of an old Victorian house, and hinted at the darker things it might conceal inside.  The house is lonely, perhaps abandoned, slowly decaying beside a railroad track rusting in the sunlight.

Hopper painted many, many works, too many to discuss here, but I want to mention one other type of painting he did, as exemplified by 11 am:

11 am (1926)

As you can see, the painting is of a nude woman, naked save for a pair of black flats, staring out of a window.  It’s the epitome of loneliness, of longing for deliverance that will not come.  Here Hopper takes us into a personal level of horror, of despair and loss and longing.  There is no need for anything but that look, pensive and furtive, of the woman sitting there, bare and defenseless, waiting for something that will never come.

Art is something to be appreciated, and looking beneath the initial layer reveals surprising vistas.  Hopper understood this.  His paintings remain a window into a world we don’t want to see, but have no choice but to stare at and realize that they only show us what we already know – the world is a scary place.


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