The Distinctive Use of Light in Edward Hopper’s Paintings

Why luminescence means more than illumination

Christopher P Jones
6 min readSep 5

Morning Sun (1952) by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 101.98 × 71.5 cm. Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, U.S. Image source WikiArt

One of my favourite possessions is a stack of Edward Hopper postcards, each with a painting on the front. I look through them often. Some of the postcards I’ve pinned to the wall above my desk; others I use as bookmarks. They’re around me constantly.

One aspect of Hopper’s art that I’m always trying to understand better — to see better — is how he used light.

Few artists gave light such metaphorical significance as Hopper did. Light in his paintings tends to testify to a personal transformation.

Or more precisely, the way his characters bathe themselves in the long, low light of the morning or evening sun, seems to indicate a longing for transformation.

Underlying this urge seems to sit a plethora of mental states and conflicted emotions. Unfulfilled dreams that still insist on being heard, hopes that have been thwarted by the smothering effects of society or maybe at the hands of a lover or someone else close. Yet, among the introspection, there is also the hope for change.

In a painting like Morning Sun (1952), light occupies a distinct rectangle on the bedroom wall. It is no coincidence that, compositionally speaking, the right edge of the rectangle of light passes directly through the woman’s head. The space of this light is the void that the woman’s daydreams seem on the verge of filling — like a film about to be projected on a screen.

Exactly what is happening inside her mind is left as an open question. The blank space on the wall is an invitation for the viewer to ultimately complete.

Light as a Metaphor

In many respects, Hopper was an abstract artist, a painter of geometric blocks of form on a canvas. Yet his awareness of American urban motifs — the diner, the theatre, the brownstone houses — kept him firmly in the realm of realism, albeit a poetic version.

In this realm, light often acts as a metaphor for the thing that cannot be suppressed.

Despite its intangibility, light so often represents an aspect of things that remain resolute. It’s as if the very elusive or ungraspable…