Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks 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. Whilst this isn't particularly shocking today, it wowed audiences at the time. Fluorescent lights were not widely used until the 1940s, and his representation of their radiance was groundbreaking.
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 however, leading to a subsequent art-lovers “hunt” for the real 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 common in city life. Hopper claimed he didn’t specifically set out to paint a lonely scene however. He instead “unconsciously” painted the loneliness of big cities.
Edward Hopper paintings were each meticulously thought-through, and Nighthawks is no exception. Indeed, Hopper kept a diary describing each artwork that his wife Josephine also contributed to.
These notes suggest the title “Nighthawks” was inspired by the man at the bar and his “night hawk beak” (referencing his nose). The “very good looking” boy behind the counter is also described, as is the “dark sinister” figure at the back. In a later letter, Josephine also described how Hopper posed for two of the male figures. She posed for the single female character.
Edward Hopper spent just under two months working on the Nighthawks. All this arduous work paid off, however. The oil painting was displayed at Rehn’s (the New York Gallery favored by Hopper); it wasn’t long before buyers noticed the astounding piece. The painting sold just months after its creation in 1942 for $3,000 (almost $50,000 today), and was purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago.
Daniel Catton Rich (the director of the Art Institute), immediately pronounced it as “fine as a Homer”. This was in reference to the famed American landscape painter, Winslow Homer. Indeed, Rich already loved Edward Hopper art, having previously praised Gas (a work featuring a luminescent gas station, painted just a year previous).
Edward Hopper art remains incredibly sought-after today. To give just one 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, the film noir movement. In a fitting tribute, Ridley Scott described it as the source for Blade Runner’s “future noir” aesthetic.
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