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Nighthawks By Edward Hopper: Great Art Explained

Edward Hopper’s world was New York and he 
understood that city, more than most people.   He understood that even though you may live in 
one of the most crowded and busy cities on earth,   it is still possible to feel entirely alone. 
This painting was completed on january the 21st 1942.  Just weeks after the bombing of Pearl 
Harbor and America’s entry into World War II.   That’s not to say the war was a direct influence, 
but the feeling of dread, many americans had,   surely infused the painting. Afraid of air raid 
attacks, New York had blackout drills and lights were dimmed in public spaces. Streets emptied out, 
and Hopper’s city was effectively dark… and silent.   [Newsreel] “The route was past miles of tenements, giving 
the passengers a glimpse into every window,   all the tenement dwellers got in return, was a 
feeling of being close to the passing parade”.   Edward Hopper took the elevated El-train to work 
for decades. In his forties he was a failure who   couldn’t sell a painting. He hated his job as 
a magazine illustrator, but he needed the money.   His paintings were pretty much ignored by critics. 
while his fellow artists enjoyed success and fame.   But hopper was convinced of his talent, and even 
when he was broke, he only accepted illustration   work three days a week. Hopper’s voice: “Illustration really didn’t 
interest me i was forced into it, by an effort   to make some money that’s all”. The rest of the 
week he painted extraordinary images.  He spent his entire adult life in New York City. Most of it 
in a small walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village.   Eventually his wife Jo would move in.
It was not a happy marriage they argued a lot and   it was explosive, at times violent and extremely 
codependent. They would sometimes not talk to each   other for days, and spent much of their marriage in 
silence. We see this reflected in the disconnected   and unhappy couples he portrays time and again 
in his paintings. Couples who may share the same   space, but inhabit different worlds. Then in 1924 
at the age of 42, he had his first sellout show,   promptly gave up his illustration, and 
devoted his life exclusively to art. He married Jo in 1924 the same year he got his 
solo show. They were both in their 40s when they   married, and they would stay together for 43 
years. Before they married Jo was a moderately   successful artist, and it was her who introduced 
him to curators at the Brooklyn museum, who bought   one of his paintings and launched his career. 
It was down to Jo that Edward became a success,   a fact he never thanked her for. Jo Hopper: “it seems to me 
that women are the ones that show the gratitude”.   In fact Edward, a gloomy and silent figure would 
spend their marriage constantly belittling and   denigrating his wife and her artistic talents. 
Jo would respond with verbal assaults of her own.   She was possessive and jealous and refused 
to allow other women to pose for him.  She was the model for every single one of his paintings, 
including “Girlie Show” when she was 60 years old.   Their unhappy marriage almost certainly 
contributed to the artists depicting figures   who seem emotionally unresolved. In Hopper’s 
paintings, couples are not communicating,   touching or displaying any affection. 
Relationships are ambiguous, characters   do not interact with each other. They are 
disconnected, both from themselves, and from us.   Jo and Edward Hopper loved the theatre 
and movies, and nighthawks suggest to us   a scene on an illuminated stage, as if 
we are watching in a darkened theatre.   His compositions were often influenced by set 
design, stage lighting and the kind of aggressive   cropping and angles we see in cinema. With Hopper’s 
work it is important to focus on the preparation.   Finding the right subject matter crippled him 
with anxiety. Once he decided, there followed months   of research, preparation, and mostly sketching. 
There are 19 surviving sketches for Nighthawks,   but he would have done many more. Hopper would use 
life drawings to establish a visual understanding,   and then relied on his subconscious to refine 
the final composition of his paintings.   We know from Jo’s notes on the painting, that she posed 
for the woman, and Edward posed for the three men.   He dismissed his years spent illustrating 
magazines, but along with the preparation skills he   picked up, it also helped to hone his storytelling 
abilities. He planned Nighthawks like a film   director. Storyboarding the painting ahead of its 
creation, he prepared props, the position of hands,   the distance of the couple, the clothes. 
And everything was documented by Jo.  Then he worked out the angle of the diner’s window, 
and its position in the street like an architect.   Hopper uses strong diagonal lines for the diner, 
that converge off-screen and suggest a space   outside the painting. But also lead the eye to the 
right. No matter which side of the painting you   look at first, the clever use of perspective, pulls 
your eyes towards the four figures in the diner.  He uses colour to achieve this too. Darker tones of 
red and green outside the diner, stand out against   the bright yellow interior. Causing our gaze to 
shift from exterior to interior. There is no life   outside the diner and what details there are, are 
minimal. We see a cash register across the way, in   an otherwise deserted store. We see an ad above the 
diner. But the buildings around are devoid of life.   This is a world shut down. The large window, not 
only creates a barrier between the viewer and   the characters, but also emphasises the silence 
inside the diner, and adds a voyeuristic touch.   The characters are trapped, like specimens 
in a jar. Windows and looking through them,   feature in so many of Hopper’s works. And we are 
often looking at an angle. Although he was often   grouped with the “American realist painters”, he 
once said: “I think i am still an impressionist”   The ideas of one artist in particular Gustav 
Caillebotte was a major influence and is rarely   discussed. His works often feature the window 
motif, but we can also see his influence on   Hopper’s loose brush work, his use of saturated 
colour, his urban settings – and his perspectives.   Like the Impressionists, Hopper was obsessed by 
light. The year before Hopper painted Nighthawks,   “Cafe terrace at Nigh”t by Vincent van Gogh 
was exhibited in New York, which we know   Hopper saw and admired. Both scenes are lit by 
artificial light. Gas lamps in van Gogh’s case.   In hopper’s diner, the light source is neon 
light, a relatively new thing in the 1940s,   which gives it an eerie glow, like a beacon on 
the dark street corner. The night-time setting is   melancholic and enhances the emotional content 
of the work. Suggesting danger or uneasiness.   Hopper often portrayed a specific time of day in 
his paintings, and night-time seems a particular   time of anxiety for him, from early on in his career.
If you are looking for a door to welcome us in – there just isn’t one – to go in or out – the diner is 
hermetically sealed. Effectively keeping the viewer   at bay. We can only stare in from the outside.
The door we see, probably leads to the kitchen.   What really interested Hopper was emotions 
and interpersonal relationships. He was drawn   to the lives of people, he’d seen 
through the windows on the El-train,   in offices and in restaurants and apartments. 
The characters are in their own worlds. As is   usual with Hopper, there is no sign of conversa tion 
amongst them. Tension somehow radiates from them.   He specialised in these open-ended narratives, 
which demand the active role of the viewer   in completing the story. He plays with 
our expectations, with our unconscious mind. This unrelated image, painted two years before 
Nighthawks, is a radically different subject matter,   But there is still a sense of foreboding. A feeling 
that the story will continue outside the frame.   Couples and their lack of emotional interaction, 
was a theme in Hopper’s work, and this would   increase as he got older and his relationship with 
Jo more distant. The couple are physically close,   yet psychologically miles apart. Are they even a 
couple? At first we think their hands are touching,   but they are not. Her coffee cup is steaming, his is 
stone cold. Perhaps suggesting he has been waiting   a while for her. The title of the painting came from Jo, who described this character
as having a hawk beaked nose. He is holding an unlit cigarette, which in 
Hopper’s original sketch, was in the woman’s hand.   The isolation of the solitary man with his back 
to us, is accentuated by the couple. A closer look   shows us that he is holding a glass with his right 
hand, and he has a newspaper folded flat underneath his left. The front page, no doubt full of news of 
the war. It is unclear who this random glass is for.   Maybe it’s for us? Along with everyone 
else, the waiter is not conversing   or even making eye contact with anyone 
else. He is just staring out of the window. Ever since he painted Nighthawks, people have tried 
to work out the exact location of the real diner.   Following hints the artist 
gave in various interviews.   People spent months trudging around New 
York without success. That’s because the   diner never was in New York. It was always in 
the same place – inside Edward Hopper’s head.   Hopper was a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s short 
story “The Killers” from 1927. which is considered   an inspiration for Nighthawks. It tells the story 
of two thugs, who enter a diner in search of their   next victim. The classic 1946 movie version, 
was in turn inspired by Hopper’s Nighthawks.   The quintessentially American artist loved cinema, 
and cinema, that quintessentially American art form,   loved Hopper. He often went to the cinema 
alone at night in search of inspiration.   Film-noir was a primary influence and we can 
see this in what many consider to be the first   film-noir, released one year before he completed 
Nighthawks. It is said that while shooting   “Force of Evil”, the director took the cinematographer 
to an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s works,   and said, that he wanted the picture to look 
like those paintings. Hopper said that even   his early works, may have been influenced by 
German Expressionist cinema he saw in Paris. When it comes to the filmmakers themselves, Hopper 
is arguably the most influential artist of all time. A new generation of filmmakers would pay 
homage to Hopper’s use of: High contrast lighting,   his American settings of anonymous apartments 
diners and bars, by his extreme cropping   and decentralized framing. But in particular, they 
would be inspired by the characters he painted.   Characters, waiting for their stories to 
be told. “Nighthawks” itself was faithfully   recreated for the movies. With the diner 
becoming a shortcut to emotional dysfunction.   Nighthawks, like the best movie, is not just about 
composition and style, it is a masterwork that in   a single frame can suggest to us a narrative, 
that stretches far beyond the picture plane. Hopper: “It’s probably a reflection of my own – I may 
say loneliness – i don’t know”. With Nighthawks,   Edward Hopper captures a world of loneliness, 
isolation and quiet anguish. The painting,   an immediate success, was bought by the Art 
Institute of Chicago, where it still is today.   Hopper, the quiet man of American painting, 
projected an “everyman” image, but he was   a complicated and troubled man. He was an 
intellectual, who struggled to find inspiration,   and grappled with meaning. His works took months 
of preparation and hard work, and he only produced   about five paintings a year. Sometimes less. 
He often felt like an outsider himself.   At six foot five, he was an exceptionally tall man, 
and by the age of 12 he was already six foot tall.   A fact that certainly contributed to his 
growing sense of isolation and loneliness.  Painfully shy, he was a loner from an early age.   This continued into adulthood, and he was deeply 
introverted and uncomfortable in social situations.   When he married Jo, it would seem 
that his years of loneliness were over.   But as many people discover, you can be in 
a relationship, and still be utterly alone.   Hopper’s paintings demonstrate to us, that these 
feelings are normal. That loneliness or feelings   of isolation are commonplace. Ironically his 
paintings show us – that actually we are not alone.
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