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Lighting in Edward Hopper’s 1940 Painting, Gas

I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

This article provides an analysis and discussion of Edward Hopper's painting Gas. It also presents some biographical information about Hopper.

This article provides an analysis and discussion of Edward Hopper's painting Gas. It also presents some biographical information about Hopper.

Finding Hopper's Gas

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. 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, 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.

Who Was Edward Hopper?

Edward Hopper (July 22, 1882 – May 15, 1967) is an important 20th-century American painter. He was born to a middle-class family in New York that encouraged him to develop his artistic abilities.

He studied at the New York School of Art under William Merrit Chase and Robert Henri, but grew highly interested in the work of the French painters Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet after visiting Paris three times between 1906 and 1910.

Hopper struggled to spotlight his art and gain recognition for his work during mid-20s to mid-30s, but eventually landed his first one-person exhibition at The Whitney Studio Club when he was 37. A few years later, he sold all of his paintings at his second one-person exhibition.

The Composition of Gas

This painting is interesting in how simple it is, yet how it 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.

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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 agree.

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 is more about the blending of light and shadow in realistic tones that present the darkness as peaceful the longer you look at it.


The Speed of Light

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 eye-catching as a sunset at the beach.

The gas that is burned by the cars that 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 attendant who pumps it into the vehicles 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 his living 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 Hopper struggled with this piece, but the effort paid off. The calm but ghostly 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.

Visit Gas at the Musem of Modern Art

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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