Born in Nyack, New York, Hopper studied commercial art and painting in New York City. His most important teacher--and perhaps the greatest influence on his professional work--was artist Robert Henri, who encouraged his students to use their art to "make a stir in the world." He was also a proponent of realistic depictions of urban life, and his students, many of which became important artists, became known as the "Ashcan School" of American Art.
Upon completing his formal education, Hopper made three trips to Europe to study the emerging art scene there, but unlike so many of his contemporaries, who imitated the abstract cubist experiments, Hopper was enamored of the idealism of the realist painters. His early projects reflect this; though they are in no way as exceptional as his better known, later work.
While he worked for several years as a commercial artist, Hopper continued painting. In 1925 he produced House by the Railroad, a classic work that signified his attaining artistic maturity. The work is the first of a series of stark urban and rural scenes based on sharp lines and large shapes, played on by unusual lighting to capture the lonely mood of his subjects. His subject matter was derived from the very common feature of American life, including gas stations, motels, the railroad, or an empty street.
Perhaps the most famous of these is Nighthawks (1942), showing the lonely customers frequenting an all-night diner downtown. The diner's harsh electric lights set it off from the more gentle night outside. The diners, seated at stools around the counter, are similarly isolated from one another, leaving the viewer to wonder what sad lives could have led them to the diner at this time of night.
Hopper's rural New England scenes such as Gas (1940) are no less wistful. In terms of his subject matter, he can be compared to his contemporary, Norman Rockwell. But while Rockwell exalted in the rich imagery of small-town America, Hopper seems to find in it that same sense of forlorn solitude that permeates his portrayal of city life. Here too, Hopper's work exploits vast empty spaces, represented by a lonely gas station astride an empty country road and the sharp contrast between the natural light of the sky, moderated by the lush forest, and glaring artificial light coming from inside the gas station.
Hopper died in 1967, in his studio near Washington Square, in New York City. His wife, the painter Josephine Nivison, who died 10 months later, bequeathed his work to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Other important paintings by Hopper can be found at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.