Looking At Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is, for me and for many, many others, a particularly important and resonant painting. It encapsulates a mood, an aspect of life that few other paintings have addressed so well. On a personal level, at my Facebook page, you’ll see that the painting serves as my cover photo, and my profile photo is the man facing away from the viewer (I hope that isn’t too revealing of my personality, or neuroses).

Now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, Nighthawks is a moderately large painting at 33 1⁄8 × 60 inches. Hopper finished it on January 21, 1942, after about a month and a half of work. He put it on display at Rehn’s, a gallery that often sold his works. Daniel Catton Rich, then the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, liked it, and arranged for the Art Institute to purchase it for $3,000. Nighthawks has been displayed at the Art Institute ever since.

In the notebook about Hopper’s work that he and his wife Josephine, or Jo, kept for years, Jo described the painting this way: “Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles 3/4 across canvas–at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre [sic] door into kitchen right … Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back–at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark–Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street–at edge of stretch of top of window.”

Hopper said that Nighthawks was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” But no one has been able to track down the exact restaurant, although many have tried. One Hopper expert, Gail Levin, identified the spot as the “empty triangular lot” at Mulry Square, where Greenwich meets Eleventh Street and Seventh Avenue. During Hopper’s time and long thereafter, a gas station was located on one side of the lot there, and apparently a diner on the other side.
In Nighthawks, the diner seems to represent the only activity in the neighborhood. Based on the signage at the top of the building, we might call it the Phillies Five-Cent Cigar Diner (although I believe that Phillies is meant to be the name of the cigar, not the diner). The space the building inhabits seems a bit strange, out-of-kilter. This would seem to be a corner-side diner, but the angle is too sharp. The streets clearly aren’t at right-angles (Hopper painted this sort of space a couple of other times), and so the diner must be wedge-shaped. Hopper had a great fascination with how man-made light illuminates night scenes. Nighthawks is one of his finest examinations of this. Notice how the light from within the building spills out onto the sidewalk in multiple streams, from the several light sources within, that intersect in fascinating ways.
We view the scene within the diner through one large pane of glass, with another behind it both serving as a backdrop for three of the four people in the painting, and revealing a bit of the street scene on the other side of the building. Across the street, all the buildings seem abandoned, even uninhabited, although one can see an old-fashioned cash register in the window of one of them.
How does one enter the diner? There is a wooden door at the back, which looks more like a bathroom door than anything else. But in the front part of the diner, there is no apparent entrance – and thereby, of course, no exit. The clerk seems trapped, too – how exactly does he exit his spot behind the counter? Its triangular shape seems to surround him.

Inside of the diner, the light is bright, almost antiseptic, and impossible to hide from. Fluorescent lights were just at that time becoming commonplace, and one commentator described the lighting here as “clinical,” “intimidating, alienating, and dehumanizing.” While the light is cold, there is some warmth within the diner in the cherry wood color of the counter. Empty stools help emphasize the loneliness of the scene.
Olivia Laing, in her book The Lonely City (which I discuss here), writes generally about Hopper that “…his paintings tend to be populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress,” combined with a particular sense of space, “the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure.”

At the counter we see a couple sitting next to one another. Their hands may almost be touching on the counter, but other than that, they seem very cold, almost oblivious to one another. The man stares blankly ahead, and the woman abstractedly examines her nails. Even with their seeming isolation, the postures of the couple compliment one another. It may be that the title of the painting came from the hawk nose of the man. The red-haired woman was apparently modeled by Hopper’s wife Jo.
The clerk behind the counter looks engaging enough and seems to be trying to make small talk, but doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. On the counter, there are a couple of coffee dispensers, but, aside from salt and pepper shakers and napkins and such, no other indications of food or drink, not even a kitchen, at least from our vantage point. Perhaps all his establishment offers is coffee for its late-night denizens.
What about the most intriguing, figuratively and literally the central, figure in the painting, the man facing away from us? We have no clue as to what he’s looking at or thinking about. There’s a slight indication that he’s holding something in his right hand, but we can’t make out what it is. There is an almost existential quality to the man’s isolation. Hopper’s wife Jo described him as “dark sinister.”
Hopper biographer Gail Levin suggests that Hopper may have taken some inspiration for Nighthawks from Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Night Café, which was on exhibit in New York in early 1942, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story, The Killers. Those who have seen the marvelous 1946 Robert Siodmak-directed film of The Killers will remember a very Hopper-like cafe early in the movie, entered by the two hitmen who are seeking out Burt Lancaster’s “the Swede” in order to kill him. Indeed, one can’t help but connect Nighthawks with The Killers and other examples of film noir, “black film,” that distinctive style of existential urban crime drama that thrived in the 1940s and 1950s.
Nighthawks doesn’t seem to have any obvious specific narrative, although it’s suggestive enough that we might want to speculate on one. While he always hesitated to interpret his own work, Hopper did say that in Nighthawks, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” The scene feels static, but at the same time tense with expectation. Why does the couple seem so aloof? Does the figure with his back to us have some kind of ill intent? Hawks in general, including nighthawks, would normally be thought of as predatory – but who, if anyone, is preying on whom here?

Recall, too, that this painting was being created right at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry by the United States into World War II. While the people within the diner seem exposed to the world, vulnerable in the bright light, they are also protected in the cocoon of the diner. Perhaps that’s another subconscious way in which Hopper created a feeling of alienation – all the figures seem entirely isolated from their surroundings.

By the same token, this scene could be interpreted is as a respite. Presumably the three figures have lives outside the diner, jobs and relationships and bills to pay. Perhaps they derive some comfort from the isolation of the diner, some protection from the ravages of the world outside. They don’t need to be self-conscious here, and are free to inhabit their own thoughts.

There seems to be a general consensus that loneliness is at the heart of Nighthawks, perhaps the most famous of Hopper’s paintings. Joyce Carol Oates has called it “our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness.” Yet, as Olivia Laing writes about Hopper’s work in The Lonely City, it is “as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.”

By the way, a multitude of other works, from novels and poems to films, paintings and sculptures have found inspiration in Nighthawks, including The Simpsons

7 thoughts on “Looking At Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

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