Have You Ever Cried in Front of a Work of Art?

Sep 2, 2020
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. Public Domain.

Have you ever cried in front of a work of art? Write down six things about it that made you cry. Tack the list to your studio wall. Those are magical abracadabras for you.—Jerry Saltz

The first time I remember crying in front of a work of art was when I saw Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks for the first time.

Nighthawks hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, itself an iconic experience. My first visit to the Institute also marked my first experience of a major museum of art. I was giddy and completely intoxicated with beauty and wonder.

When we reached the wing that houses Nighthawks, I was starting to feel that heaviness in my back and legs that walking all day in a huge museum gives you. But I willed myself on and on, pulled magnetically by the magnitude of the greatness all around me. I felt as if I was in a alien world filled with all the dreams of creativity I’d ever had, all in one place, a massive explosion of color and shape and texture.

When I came upon Nighthawks, I was in this vulnerable, fatigued, art-drunk state. I stopped dead in my tracks and began to cry.

I don’t recall when I first saw a reproduction of Nighthawks but I know I was a small child when I did. I remember staring at the piece with obsessive fascination. Who were these people? Why were they at that diner in the middle of the night? What were their relationships? Their occupations? Their futures and their pasts?

I’ve always had a very vivid imagination and Hopper’s artwork stimulates storytelling. His work has the quality of a graphic novel, as if you’ve started a book in mid-sentence, beginning to read a captivating story without context or prequel.

As it turns out, that storyboard narrative of Hopper’s paintings was intentional. He and his wife collaborated on his preliminary sketches and she would annotate his sketchbooks with detailed descriptions of the subjects of his work.

Following Jerry Saltz’s advice, here are the six things about Nighthawks that made me cry:

  • My initial emotional response was triggered by the shock of seeing such an iconic painting in real life.
  • I was truly art-drunk, completely intoxicated by beauty, and I tend to cry when I’m tipsy.
  • The painting has a strong ambience of loneliness. The artist infused the piece with the vibe of a kind of sadness.
  • I felt a sense of longing, a yearning that was so deep it scared me.
  • I recalled first seeing Hopper’s art in books as a child and I felt a mixture of joy and a pang of sadness for the lonely and isolated kid I was then.
  • I cried from pure jealousy. I had always wanted to be an artist but at that time (in the early 90’s), I thought that dream was completely out of reach for me.

Have you ever cried in front of a work of art? What was it? Share your story in the comments!

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I publish Painterly, a monthly newsletter for bird-loving artists who want to learn more about birds and grow their artistic skills.

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