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Nighthawks, 1942 by Edward Hopper

Nighthawks is a 1942 painting by Edward Hopper that portrays people sitting in a downtown diner late at night. It is Hopper's most famous work and is one of the most recognizable paintings in American art. Within months of its completion, it was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago for $3,000, and has remained there ever since.

Starting shortly after their marriage in 1924, Edward Hopper and his wife, Josephine (Jo), kept a journal in which he would, using a pencil, make a sketch-drawing of each of his paintings, along with a precise description of certain technical details. Jo Hopper would then add additional information in which the themes of the painting are, to some degree, illuminated.

A review of the page on which "Nighthawks" is entered shows (in Edward Hopper's handwriting) that the intended name of the work was actually "Night Hawks", and that the painting was completed on January 21, 1942.

Jo's handwritten notes about the painting give considerably more detail, including the interesting possibility that the painting's evocative title may have had its origins as a reference to the beak-shaped nose of the man at the bar:

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 cross 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.

In January 1942, Jo confirmed her preference for the name. In a letter to Edward's sister Marion she wrote, "Ed has just finished a very fine picture--a lunch counter at night with 3 figures. Night Hawks would be a fine name for it. E. posed for the two men in a mirror and I for the girl. He was about a month and half working on it."

Hopper chose to paint a scene located at a sharply-angled street-corner, rather than at one of New York's many right-angled intersections. This choice was not unusual for Hopper, who painted a number of other scenes of this kind of corner (see Office at Night (1940)). A sharp corner gave him the opportunity to display his subjects from a nearly frontal point of view, and also allowed him to display the dimly visible street scene behind the patrons. Hopper often painted scenes in which a part of the exterior view could be seen through two panes of glass. But the shape of the diner in Nighthawks, when seen from Hopper's chosen angle (which is also the point of view of a passer-by walking past on the sidewalk), allows this second glass surface to fill the entire centre of the painting. The further pane of glass forms a rhomboid, close to the center of the painting and recalling, with slight distortion, the shape of the entire canvas, and framing much of the action.

The back window serves as a background for all three customers, but not for the server. Its variance from the shape of the painting as a whole also hides a curious symmetry that would otherwise be obvious: The head of the customer who is sitting alone is at the precise center of the frame-within-a-frame (which is also the exact center of the painting as a whole). Although they sit around a bend in the counter, the heads of the couple are directly to his right, so that a horizontal line, drawn precisely halfway between the top and the bottom of the canvas, would bisect all three heads. The entire human element in the painting is therefore contained within the lower right-hand quarter of the canvas.

As Jo Hopper's journal entry notes, the brightest spot in the painting is the bit of bright ceiling close to the hidden fluorescent light that illuminates the interior. The ceiling is obviously of limited relevance to any narrative that might be unfolding among the customers below; this is Hopper's realism at work.

Outside the diner, dull colors predominate, as might be expected at night. Inside, the counter-top and the men's suits are also dull. The two brightly-colored spots in the entire interior are the white outfit worn by the server and the female customer's red blouse. Indeed, her red blouse and lipstick represent the only use of red in the entire composition, causing her to stand apart from everything else in the painting.

Hopper had a lifelong interest in capturing the effect of light on the objects it touched. This interest extended to his numerous canvases of sunlit houses and lighthouses in New England, but he was equally intrigued by the nighttime effect of artificial, manmade light spilling out of windows, doorways and porches, dealing with the subject over and over again in paintings like Drug Store (1927), Gas (1940), Rooms for Tourists (1945) and Summer Evening (1947).

However, Nighthawks was probably Hopper's most ambitious essay in capturing the night-time effects of manmade light. For one thing, the diner's plate-glass windows cause far more light to spill out onto the sidewalk and the brownstones on the far side of the street than is true in any of his other paintings. As well, this interior light comes from more than a single lightbulb, with the result that multiple shadows are cast, and some spots are brighter than others as a consequence of being lit from more than one angle. Across the street, the line of shadow caused by the upper edge of the diner window is clearly visible towards the top of the painting. These windows, and the ones below them as well, are partly lit by an unseen streetlight, which projects its own mix of light and shadow. As a final note, the bright interior light causes some of the surfaces within the diner to be reflective. This is clearest in the case of the right-hand edge of the rear window, which reflects a vertical yellow band of interior wall, but fainter reflections can also be made out, in the counter-top, of three of the diner's occupants. None of these reflections would be visible in daylight.

Hopper's biographer, Gail Levin, speculates that Hopper may have been inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's Café at Night, which was showing at a gallery in New York in January 1942. The similarity in lighting and themes makes this possible; it is certainly very unlikely that Hopper would have failed to see the exhibition, and as Levin notes, the painting had twice been exhibited in the company of Hopper's own works. Beyond this, there is no evidence that Café at Night exercised an influence on Nighthawks. Although there is no evidence at all (other than the fact that Hopper admired the story), Levin also suggests that he may have been inspired by Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story, The Killers.

Edward Hopper's Masterpieces

  • Nighthawks
    Nighthawks
  • Automat
    Automat
  • New York Movie
    New York Movie
  • Early Sunday Monring
    Early Sunday Monring
  • Rooms by the Sea
    Rooms by the Sea
  • Gas
    Gas
  • Summer Evening
    Summer Evening
  • Route 6, Eastham
    Route 6, Eastham
  • Cape Cod Evening
    Cape Cod Evening
  • House by the Railroad
    House by the Railroad
  • Girl at Sewing Machine
    Girl at Sewing Machine
  • Ground Swell
    Ground Swell
  • The Lighthouse at two Lights
    The Lighthouse at two Lights
  • Railroad Sunset
    Railroad Sunset
  • Chop Suey
    Chop Suey
  • Manhattan Bridge Loop
    Manhattan Bridge Loop
  • Western Motel
    Cape Cod Morning
  • Sun in an Empty Room
    Sun in an Empty Room