Lighting in Art, A Reflection of Edward Hopper’s Gas, 1940
One day, I saw a framed print of a painting at a thrift store of a gas station lit up on a country road at dusk. I bought it, deciding to give it to my dad as a Father’s Day gift. When I gave it to him, he loved it and asked me if I knew who painted the original. He was hoping that they had done other gas station paintings similar to this one. It didn’t even occur to me that the painting could have been famous. I like to draw and paint and visit museums, but I can’t say I know very much about art. So, it surprised me when I looked it up and found out that it was an Edward Hopper. I knew of him, especially his painting titled, Nighthawks (1942), but he isn’t really known for his abundance of gas station paintings.
I decided to buy this painting, not because of the artist, obviously, but because of the subject but also because of the lighting. There was something mesmerizing about the glow of the gas station lights paired with the natural lighting of the sky blending together without getting into each other’s way. It doesn’t glorify either, the fabricated, nor the natural. It just presents them both as they would be seen in reality, as if the observer is coming up on the station while driving.
This painting is interesting in how simple it is yet has so much to look at from the sky to the trees to the gas pump to the station to the attendant, partially hidden in his work. Many have analyzed the juxtaposition between civilization and nature as one ends and the other begins. The gas station represents the last light of the safety of society before traveling down the road into the unknown darkness of the woods. Others have remarked on how Hopper’s paintings present sad situations without making the observer feel sad themselves. I find this to be very true. The painting sucks you in visually without sucking you in emotionally. There is usually a dark, quiet atmosphere that can come across as sinister at first, but are more about the blending of light and shadow in realistic tones that present the darkness as peaceful the longer you look at it.
There are no politics or philosophies presented in Hopper’s piece which is both refreshing and inviting. His paintings are simply snapshots preserving the "modern" world around him. It doesn’t ask you to ponder big ideas or condemn the artificial light of man or the uncertain darkness of nature. Regardless of the dangers of either, they both exist together without taking anything away from each other. After all, a lit up carnival at night can be just as mesmerizing as a sunset at the beach. The gas that is burned by the cars who fill up at that pump is polluting the atmosphere that may one day affect that view of the sky. But it’s 1940, and that style of gas pump and the clothes worn by the attendant are all in the past, depicting a world that fewer and fewer people in the world have seen as the painting ages and one that most of us will never see.
My dad says that the painting seems to light up the room at night. The care put into giving the gas pumps the right glow and the sky just that right shade of purple must be what Hopper was going for. I read that he struggle with this piece, but the effort paid off. The ghostly but calm image pulls off what it set to achieve. The original oil on canvas sits at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, not far from Hopper’s hometown of Upper Nyack, NY. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, a print bought for just a few dollars hangs on a living room wall, over 70 years after the time the original was painted. It just goes to show how long light can travel and where it can end up.
Location of The Museum of Modern Art where you can view the original painting.