Chiaroscuro: What Edward Hopper, Film Noir & Interwar American Literature Have in Common

Nighthawks.  Edward Hopper, 1942.

Gee, I’m just on an art kick this week!  (Sorry, no post yesterday.  Busy day.)

I’ve been looking at some more art and remembered an American artist I learned about in school a few years ago: Edward Hopper.  And then a million thoughts started floating around in my head, which happens a lot when I’m browsing the internet.  Though, a couple of words and phrases kept popping up: black and white, stark, depression, momentary blindness, and chiaroscuro.

In order for me to make sense of the word soups my brain sometimes generates I either have to (a) talk myself through it, or (b) write myself through it.

Today, I feel like I’ve got to write my way through it.  Let’s see if I can’t make sense of this.

First, let’s define a term that may or may not be widely understood.


Etymology: From Italian, from chiaro (clear, light) + oscuro (obscure, dark).  From

Chiaroscuro is an artistic technique in which the artist uses a stark contrast of bright lighting effects in combination with areas of deep shades.  It makes for an interestingly bold effect and lends itself well to both photography and cinematography (B&W especially) and other mediums, to be sure.  Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange is famous for her “stark” photographs (though not necessarily chiaroscuro):

 Here’s a famous example of chiaroscuro in a B&W film:

I think Edward Hopper used it fairly often in his work, as well–like in Nighthawks above.  Here are some other examples:

 Okay, now on to why I’m writing about any of this. Stark Opposition: Understanding the World through a “Black & White Lens”…So to Speak The world is clearly not black and white, but I find it difficult to understand without at first filtering it through this approach.  I think of the story of Adam and Eve and have wondered what it might have been like to never known sin, or that which was not deemed “good.” Complete innocence and ignorance.  (In their case, ignorance was bliss…until they sought out knowledge, right?) To understand the value and meaning of good, you must first be exposed to that which is not, and I don’t think Adam or Eve understood this so clearly as the moment they ate from the Tree. It moments like this that are so stark in the human experience, so clear in one’s memory, that they forever define the way a person looks at the world. You are almost blinded by the contrast between what you once knew and what you know now.  They are particularly powerful experiences. In a flash of a bright light you are momentarily blinded; it is impossible to perceive shades of grey during that time. I think this is what chiaroscuro is all about: capturing moments of stark (first) impressions–truths in their most naked forms.  Only, as a viewer, when you experience it in a painting as opposed to real-time media you actually get a still snapshot of the moment and therefore have ample time to really process it and consider any “grey” aspects in the artwork, as with Hopper’s Nighthawks (why does it seem so empty there?)–though, you do still experience that “momentary blindness” at first sight because you can’t take everything in all at once (and this is true with any complex, multi-layered piece). I happened to write most of these thoughts up to this point in a moment of “stark impressions,” but as it settles in (and as I edit this) I find I want to explore those shades of grey as it pertains to fiction. Can Chiaroscuro Be Achieved in Literature? I think so. The Great Depression (or even just depressing themes) made an excellent backdrop for the practice of chiaroscuro in literature, thematically especially.  Two novels that inevitably come to mind, here, are The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath.  At one moment in The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway was looking forward to life in the big city; look how that turned out.  (Edit: I should acknowledge that this book wasn’t set during the Great Depression, but you still got this feeling of something rotten and corrupt happening in the city, a feeling of ruin and grit with references to ash, etc.  It was depressing, in a way.)  Similarly, in The Grapes of Wrath it started out as, “We’re going to California–yahoo!”  Though, that excitement soon dissipated once they arrived and took in the reality of the “opportunities” out west. Blind, or perhaps just innocent, optimism (chiaro), met with stark reality (oscuro)…followed by disillusionment (grey–or grigio, as it is in Italian, according to Wiktionary, haha). I think another way to apply “chiaroscuro” in literature is using foils.  What better way to show the difference between good and evil than to have characters which personify both in complementary ways?  You can also have a chiaroscuro of setting versus context, where the setting reflects an opposite atmosphere or mood to what is actually happening in the story (a happy couple out on the town, having a pleasant stroll when two violent thugs come out of nowhere–an experience they’ll always remember afterwards); or a chiaroscuro of character (an ongoing internal struggle between two desires met with a moment in which the character is forced out of their “grey” understanding and expected to take a decisive stand). Of course, it could be executed literally, narrating how certain objects or persons are in shade and how others are illuminated in bright or harsh light.  (A nefarious interrogation room, anyone?)  It could also be accomplished with the clashing of themes: life versus death, hope versus despair, sanity versus insanity, truth versus lies… In the end, it’s about dichotomies: exploring the relationship between opposites and their effects on everything they touch.  It’s just one way to look at conflicts in stories. In any case, I do think chiaroscuro works best when darker, more serious themes are being used, but it doesn’t necessarily have to end on a negative note.  You could have a story that focuses mostly on despair and ends on an up-note, for example.  Switch things around. Why I’m Drawn to These Things As I mentioned, sometimes I have trouble understanding certain things unless I can compare them to their exact opposites.  “This is a boy; this is a girl.” Ah…” Not that I’ve ever had trouble understanding the difference there, though if I were, say, a sexless alien I might have trouble grasping this simple concept until I saw it with my own eyes. I think as children we learn a lot this way.  “This is good; this is bad.”  Only difference is now that I’m older I don’t always say “okay” but sometimes, “Why?” *sighs* Yeah.  Life was much simpler as a kid.  There wasn’t a whole lot of room for greys.  Though, I’m pretty sure life would be boring if it were all black and white. So anyways… No writing prompt.  Not sure what I’d ask, to be honest.  Comments are still welcome, though, if you have any.