Nighthawks by Edward Hopper is one of the most recognizable paintings in the entirety of American art. Created in 1942, it’s a true icon of American realism.
The picture portrays four people late at night at a city restaurant. The warm light shines through a wide glass window, illuminating the lonely street beyond. While this isn't particularly shocking today, it wowed audiences at the time. Hopper's representation of fluorescent lights was groundbreaking, as they were not in general use until the 1940s.
Edward Hopper stated his exact inspiration for the work in a subsequent interview. Hopper spoke of a “restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet”.
Hopper simplified the composition and made the restaurant larger than reality, leading to a subsequent art-lovers “hunt” for the actual location. Disappointingly for some, one single identical scene isn’t likely. Instead, an amalgamation of real-life influences and buildings is the best way to understand the painting.
Regarding artistic inspiration, Hopper also spoke of two Ernest Hemingway short stories around this time. Titled “The Killers” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway’s themes of life, death, and existential loneliness significantly impressed the artist.
Despite the specificity of the artist’s memory, the work has a timeless, universal quality. All the diners reflect the unique anonymity of the crowd so typical in city life. However, Hopper claimed he didn’t explicitly set out to paint a lonely scene. He instead “unconsciously” painted the loneliness of big cities.
Edward Hopper's paintings were each meticulously thought-through, and Nighthawks is no exception. Indeed, Hopper kept a diary describing each artwork contribution by his wife, Jo.
These notes suggest the man at the bar and his "night hawk beak" inspired the title “Nighthawks”. Hopper also describes the “very good-looking” boy behind the counter and the “dark, sinister” figure at the back. In a later letter, Josephine also told how Hopper posed for two of the male figures while she posed for the single female character.
Edward Hopper spent just under two months working on the Nighthawks. Finally, however, all this arduous work paid off, and Rehn’s (the New York Gallery favored by Hopper) exhibited the painting. Before too long, buyers noticed the astounding piece, and it was sold just months after its creation in 1942 for $3,000, almost $50,000 today. The Art Institute of Chicago purchased hopper's famous painting.
Daniel Catton Rich (the director of the Art Institute) immediately pronounced it as “fine as a Homer,” referencing the famed American landscape painter Winslow Homer. Indeed, Rich already loved Edward Hopper's Gas 1941 painting.
Edward Hopper's artwork remains incredibly sought-after today. For example, another Edward Hopper work, Chop Suey 1929, recently sold for over $92 million.
Nighthawks itself spawned several allusions and homages. It inspired the Photorealists working during the 1960s and 1970s (particularly Ralph Goring’s diner scenes). In addition, artists such as Gottfried Helnwein directly referenced the painting in Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1984).
In Helnwein’s iteration, American celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and James Dean replace the original figures. Served by Elvis Presley behind the counter, it speaks to modern America’s unique infatuation with these icons of pop culture.
In addition to the world of art, Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks has further inspired novels, plays, poems, and the film noir movement. In a fitting tribute, Ridley Scott described it as the source for Blade Runner’s “future noir” aesthetic.
Edward Hopper's Nighthawks is one of our top 100 famous oil paintings and a favorite reproduction oil painting.
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