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Nighthawks by Edward Hopper: Critical Analysis

Nighthawks is a 1942 oil painting by Edward Hopper featuring three people having drinks at a diner at a corner of the street at night. This work represents American realism of the XX century since in his art, Hopper painted contemporary American life. As his work is praised for the elaborate technique and the artful use of color, the Nighthawks feature a beautiful play of light on simplified shapes, objects, and figures. Through the medium of his paintings, Hopper communicated his feelings and reactions to the reality, which surrounded him – one situated amid World War II with the USA as one of the world’s major superpowers. The country entered the war after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Considering this context allows for a more critical look at Hopper’s Nighthawks – a window showing a view of the artist’s turbulent and counterintuitive world of international power struggle, where people nevertheless continue living their routine lives.

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At first glance, it might appear that there is not much narrative in the Nighthawks. The painting seems rather uncomplicated, with a straightforward story – three people, a diner, a street corner at night. When Katharine Kuh, a known art critic, and curator, asked Edward Hopper about the meaning and the implications of the Nighthawks, he replied: “The whole answer is there on the canvas. I don’t know how I could explain it any further” (Kuh 142). Hopper also remarked that his inspiration for the Nighthawks was a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue in New York (Kuh 134). He masterfully translated the result of his observations of the place combined with his interpretations forming a composed, very identifiable in its ordinariness scene.

While looking at the Nighthawks, resonating with the painting and letting more layers of meaning unfold, the viewer notices that, apart from its seeming triviality, the depicted situation is also familiar and engaging. Everything in it is very recognizable: anyone could imagine him- or herself in this setting – drinking coffee at the counter. Moreover, it is easy to determine that the scene is set in the USA. Some elements, which point to this, include Phillie’s cigars advertisement above the front window, the man serving his customers at the counter wearing a typical white cap, the white saltshakers. In addition, the large coffee urns in the back, a woman drinking coffee from a large white mug with her bright red dress, bright red lipstick, and bright red hair. Interestingly, the image of the woman causes the associations with the pin-up culture which originated in 1941, as American soldiers pinned up above their beds the pictures of pretty girls waiting for them back home. All of this reflects Hopper’s vision of his contemporary American society amid World War II – people continuing their daily routines in the context of international power struggles.

Another impression one forms from viewing the painting are the feeling of loneliness. In one of his interviews, Hopper admitted: “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city” (Kuh 134). The night is dark, the street is empty, there are only a few people in the diner, and no one seems to be talking. One man is sitting alone, deep in his thoughts, the barkeeper at the counter is busy with his routine tasks, and even the couple is not holding a conversation – the woman is examining something small in her hands, and her companion is smoking his cigarette absent-mindedly and looking somewhere ahead. Interestingly, Hopper mentioned that his model for the woman in the Nighthawks was his wife Josephine (Kuh 134). One might wonder what thoughts crossed the minds of the people in the painting – what they thought of the latest news or whether someone they knew was in the military, fighting the World War. Such impressions cross-reference Hopper’s interpretation of American society.

Considering the reasoning outlined above, it appears that in addition to the pronounced realistic component, there is also certain symbolism associated with the Nighthawks. It finds its reflection in the reactions the painting evokes in the audience, as the color scheme chosen by Hopper creates an atmosphere of familiar reality complemented with the traces of dream-like abstraction. While everything and everyone portrayed in the painting appear real and recognizable, the Nighthawks also generate feelings of illusion and distraction. Hopper’s proficient capturing of the night-time impression of artificial lighting with the plate-glass windows of the diner through which the light spreads onto the sidewalk and the far side of the street is remarkable. The windows appear to be partly lit by an unseen streetlight projecting yet another interplay with shadow. In addition, the surfaces inside the diner are reflective in the bright interior light. These alluring impressions would never be visible in a day setting. They make the artist’s skill and purposeful precision impressive and outline Hopper’s view of his surrounding reality – prosaic and figurative at the same time.

The Nighthawks have added layers of artistic, social, and cultural meaning, which are subject to intuitive interpretation by the audience. It may originate from several sources: the viewers’ impressions and feelings while looking at the painting, their awareness of the context of the Nighthawks, the knowledge of the artist’s life, his other works. The narrative of the painting transcends its setting, as it contrasts against the background of the experiences of the author and his audience.

Work Cited

Kuh, Katharine. The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Modern Artists. Da Capo Press, 1962.

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