Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

A Masterpiece of Urban Solitude

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, one of the 20th century’s most iconic American artworks, captures the beauty of artificial light playing on simplified shapes. Shortly after its completion, the Art Institute of Chicago acquired it for $3,000.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Oil on canvas, 33.1 in × 60.0 in ((84.1 cm × 152.4 cm)

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Oil on canvas, 33.1 in × 60.0 in (84.1 cm × 152.4 cm).

The painting features a late-night scene at the “Phillies” diner, where four figures are visible: two men, a woman, and a bartender. It’s widely interpreted as a study of existential loneliness in the modern era, with the figures appearing isolated and disconnected, emphasized by the viewer’s separation from the scene by a curved glass facade with no visible entrance.

Hopper himself stated that the painting wasn’t a deliberate study of loneliness, yet he acknowledged, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” Predating the era of smartphones, he already showcased our struggle to connect with one another as early as the 1940s.

Edward Hopper, 1937. Photo by Harris and Ewing.

Edward Hopper, 1937. Photo by Harris and Ewing.

Beyond urban alienation, Nighthawks also mirrors the paranoia in the United States following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. The pervasive anxiety and frequent blackout drills in New York City cast a shadow over the painting’s setting.

Detail, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

Detail, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

The diner in Nighthawks drew inspiration from a real one in Greenwich Village, New York City, where Hopper lived for 54 years. He often sketched scenes around the city before combining these sketches in his studio. His wife, Josephine, served as his model for the painting’s redheaded woman and played a pivotal role in his art, even influencing the painting’s title. She described one figure as a “nighthawk (beak) in dark suit, steel gray hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette.”

Despite its real-world inspirations, the painting’s empty composition and flat color planes lend it a timeless quality, inviting viewers to project their realities onto it. This universality has made Nighthawks a subject of numerous parodies, even featuring in an episode of “The Simpsons.”

One of several allusions to Nighthawks in the animated series “The Simpsons”

One of several allusions to Nighthawks in the animated series “The Simpsons”

Hopper’s works capture an image of America during and after World War II, a time of rapid change and growing affluence, yet fraught with anxiety and detachment. His influence extends across American culture, impacting figures like Alfred Hitchcock and Mark Rothko. Rothko, known for his disdain for diagonals, once said, “I hate diagonals, but I like Hopper’s diagonals. They’re the only diagonals I like.”

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” —Edward Hopper

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” —Albert Einstein

“Poirot,” I said. “I have been thinking.” “An admirable exercise my friend. Continue it.” —Agatha Christie, Peril at End House

“Nobody who says, ’I told you so’ has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.” —Ursula K. Le Guin

Bibliography

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