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Nighthawks 1942 Painting by Edward Hopper

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Nighthawks 1942 Oil Painting
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Nighthawks 1942 - Hopper Paintings for Sale

Artist Edward Hopper Edit this on Wikidata
Year 1942
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 84.1 cm (33.1 in) × 152.4 cm (60.0 in)
Location Art Institute of Chicago

Nighthawks is a 1942 oil on canvas painting by Edward Hopper that portrays people in a downtown diner late at night.

It has been described as Hopper's best known work[1] and one of the most recognizable paintings in American art.[2][3] Within months of its completion, it was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago on May 13, 1942 for $3,000.

Starting shortly after their marriage in 1924, Edward Hopper and his wife Josephine (Jo) kept a journal in which he would, using a pencil, make a sketch-drawing of each of his paintings, along with a precise description of certain technical details. Jo Hopper would then add additional information about the theme of the painting.

A review of the page on which Nighthawks is entered shows (in Edward Hopper's handwriting) that the intended name of the work was actually Night Hawks and that the painting was completed on January 21, 1942.

Jo's handwritten notes about the painting give considerably more detail, including the possibility that the painting's title may have had its origins as a reference to the beak-shaped nose of the man at the bar, or that the appearance of one of the "nighthawks" was tweaked in order to relate to the original meaning of the word:

Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles 3/4 across canvas--at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre [sic] door into kitchen right.

Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back--at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark--Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street--at edge of stretch of top of window.[5]

In January 1942, Jo confirmed her preference for the name. In a letter to Edward's sister Marion she wrote, "Ed has just finished a very fine picture--a lunch counter at night with 3 figures. Night Hawks would be a fine name for it. E. posed for the two men in a mirror and I for the girl. He was about a month and half working on it."

Upon completing the canvas in the late winter of 1942, Hopper placed it on display at Rehn's, the gallery at which his paintings were normally placed for sale. It remained there for about a month. On St. Patrick's Day, Edward and Jo Hopper attended the opening of an exhibit of the paintings of Henri Rousseau at the Museum of Modern Art, which had been organized by Daniel Catton Rich, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Rich was in attendance, along with Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. Barr spoke enthusiastically of Gas, which Hopper had painted a year earlier, and "Jo told him he just had to go to Rehn's to see Nighthawks. In the event it was Rich who went, pronounced Nighthawks 'fine as a Homer', and soon arranged its purchase for Chicago."[7] The sale price was $3,000. The painting has remained in the collection of the Art Institute ever since.

The scene was supposedly inspired by a diner (since demolished) in Greenwich Village, Hopper's neighborhood in Manhattan. Hopper himself said the painting "was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet." Additionally, he noted that "I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger."[8]

This reference has led Hopper aficionados to engage in a search for the location of the original diner. The inspiration for this search has been summed up on the blog of one of these searchers: "I am finding it extremely difficult to let go of the notion that the Nighthawks diner was a real diner, and not a total composite built of grocery stores, hamburger joints, and bakeries all cobbled together in the painter's imagination."[9]

The spot usually associated with the former location is a now-vacant lot known as Mulry Square at the intersection of Seventh Avenue South, Greenwich Avenue and West 11th Street, about seven blocks west of Hopper's studio on Washington Square. However, according to an article by Jeremiah Moss in The New York Times, this cannot be the location of the diner that inspired the painting as a gas station occupied that lot from the 1930s to the 1970s.[10]

Moss located a land-use map in a 1950s municipal atlas showing that "Sometime between the late '30s and early '50s, a new diner appeared near Mulry Square." Specifically, the diner was located immediately to the right of the gas station, "not in the empty northern lot, but on the southwest side, where Perry Street slants." This map is not reproduced in the Times article but is shown on Moss's blog.[11]

Moss comes to the conclusion that Hopper should be taken at his word: the painting was merely "suggested" by a real-life restaurant, he had "simplified the scene a great deal," and he "made the restaurant bigger." In short, there probably never was a single real-life scene identical to the one that Hopper had created, and if one did exist, there is no longer sufficient evidence to pin down the precise location. Moss concludes, "the ultimate truth remains bitterly out of reach."

Because it is so widely recognized, the diner scene in Nighthawks has served as the model for many homages and parodies.

Many artists have produced works that allude or respond to Nighthawks.

Hopper influenced the Photorealists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Ralph Goings, who evoked Nighthawks in several paintings of diners. Richard Estes painted a corner store in People's Flowers (1971), but in daylight, with the shop's large window reflecting the street and sky.[13]

More direct visual quotations began to appear in the 1970s. Gottfried Helnwein's painting Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1984) replaces the three patrons with American pop culture icons Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, and the attendant with Elvis Presley.[14] According to Hopper scholar Gail Levin, Helnwein connected the bleak mood of Nighthawks with 1950s American cinema and with "the tragic fate of the decade's best-loved celebrities."[15] Nighthawks Revisited, a 1980 parody by Red Grooms, clutters the street scene with pedestrians, cats, and trash.[16] A 2005 Banksy parody shows a fat, shirtless soccer hooligan in Union Flag boxers standing inebriated outside the diner, apparently having just smashed the diner window with a nearby chair.[17]

Several writers have explored how the customers in Nighthawks came to be in a diner at night, or what will happen next. Wolf Wondratschek's poem "Nighthawks: After Edward Hopper's Painting" imagines the man and woman sitting together in the diner as an estranged couple: "I bet she wrote him a letter/ Whatever it said, he's no longer the man / Who'd read her letters twice."[18] Joyce Carol Oates wrote interior monologues for the figures in the painting in her poem "Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, 1942".[19] A special issue of Der Spiegel included five brief dramatizations that built five different plots around the painting; one, by screenwriter Christof Schlingensief, turned the scene into a chainsaw massacre. Erik Jendresen and Stuart Dybek also wrote short stories inspired by this painting.[20][21]

Hopper was an avid moviegoer and critics have noted the resemblance of his paintings to film stills. Nighthawks and works such as Night Shadows (1921) anticipate the look of film noir, whose development Hopper may have influenced.[22][23]

Hopper was an acknowledged influence on the film musical Pennies from Heaven (1981), for which production designer Ken Adam recreated Nighthawks as a set.[24] Director Wim Wenders recreated Nighthawks as the set for a film-within-a-film in The End of Violence (1997).[22] Wenders suggested that Hopper's paintings appeal to filmmakers because "You can always tell where the camera is."[25] In Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), two characters visit a café resembling the diner in a scene that illustrates their solitude and despair.[26] The painting was also briefly used as a background for a scene in the animated film Heavy Traffic (1973) by director Ralph Bakshi.[27]

Nighthawks also influenced the "future noir" look of Blade Runner; director Ridley Scott said "I was constantly waving a reproduction of this painting under the noses of the production team to illustrate the look and mood I was after".[28] In his review of the 1998 film Dark City, Roger Ebert noted that the film had "store windows that owe something to Edward Hopper's Nighthawks."[29] Hard Candy (2005) acknowledged a similar debt by setting one scene at a "Nighthawks Diner" where a character purchases a T-shirt with Nighthawks printed on it.[30]

Tom Waits's album Nighthawks at the Diner (1975) features a title, a cover, and lyrics inspired by Nighthawks.[31]
The video for Voice of the Beehive's song "Monsters and Angels", from Honey Lingers, is set in a diner reminiscent of the one in Nighthawks, with the band-members portraying waitstaff and patrons. The band's web site said they "went with Edward Hopper's classic painting, Nighthawks, as a visual guide."[32]
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's 2013 single "Night Café" was influenced by Nighthawks and mentions Hopper by name. Seven of his paintings are referenced in the lyrics.[33]

Jonathan Miller's 1982 production of Verdi's opera Rigoletto for English National Opera, set in 1950s New York, designed by Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe, features one street setting with a bar inspired by the Nighthawks diner.[34]

An establishing shot from "Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment", one of several references to Nighthawks in the animated
The television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation placed its characters in a version of the painting.[35]
In the That '70s Show episode "Drive In," a scene ends with Red and Kitty Foreman sitting in a diner named "Phillies", when Kitty states that the moment seems familiar. The camera zooms out showing Nighthawks with Red and Kitty wearing the suit and red dress, respectively, of the man and woman sitting together.[36]
The TV show Fresh Off the Boat Season 2 poster features the title family in Nighthawks with actress Constance Wu using chopsticks[37]

A number of model railroaders, most notably John Armstrong, have recreated the scene on their layouts.[38]

Nighthawks has been widely referenced and parodied in popular culture. Versions of it have appeared on posters, T-shirts and greeting cards as well as in comic books and advertisements.[39] Typically, these parodies—like Helnwein's Boulevard of Broken Dreams, which became a popular poster[15]—retain the diner and the highly recognizable diagonal composition but replace the patrons and attendant with other characters: animals, Santa Claus and his reindeer, or the cast of The Adventures of Tintin or Peanuts.[40]

One parody of Nighthawks even inspired a parody of its own. Michael Bedard's painting Window Shopping (1989), part of his Sitting Ducks series of posters, replaces the figures in the diner with ducks and shows a crocodile outside eying the ducks in anticipation. Poverino Peppino parodied this image in Boulevard of Broken Ducks (1993), in which a contented crocodile lies on the counter while four ducks stand outside in the rain.[41]

In 2014, Sirius Radio host Howard Stern, featured a parody on his website entitled Wack Pack Diner.

Edward Hopper said that Nighthawks was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,” but the image—with its carefully constructed composition and lack of narrative—has a timeless, universal quality that transcends its particular locale. One of the best-known images of twentieth-century art, the painting depicts an all-night diner in which three customers, all lost in their own thoughts, have congregated. Hopper’s understanding of the expressive possibilities of light playing on simplified shapes gives the painting its beauty. Fluorescent lights had just come into use in the early 1940s, and the all-night diner emits an eerie glow, like a beacon on the dark street corner. Hopper eliminated any reference to an entrance, and the viewer, drawn to the light, is shut out from the scene by a seamless wedge of glass. The four anonymous and uncommunicative night owls seem as separate and remote from the viewer as they are from one another. (The red-haired woman was actually modeled by the artist’s wife, Jo.) Hopper denied that he purposefully infused this or any other of his paintings with symbols of human isolation and urban emptiness, but he acknowledged that in Nighthawks “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2013, p. 58.

Near misses
In place of meaningful interactions, the four characters inside the diner of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks are involved in a series of near misses. The man and woman might be touching hands, but they aren’t. The waiter and smoking-man might be conversing, but they’re not. The couple might strike up a conversation with the man facing them, but somehow, we know they won’t. And then we realize that Hopper has placed us, the viewer, on the city street, with no door to enter the diner, and yet in a position to evaluate each of the people inside. We see the row of empty counter stools nearest us. We notice that no one is making eye contact with any one else. Up close, the waiter’s face appears to have an expression of horror or pain. And then there is a chilling revelation: each of us is completely alone in the world.

The slickness of the paint, which makes the canvas read almost like an advertisement, and immediate accessibility of the subject matter draws the viewer into Hopper’s painting. But he does not tell us a story. Rather than a narrative about men and women out for a festive night on the town, we are invited to ask questions about the characters’ ambiguous lives. Are the man and woman a couple? Where are they coming from? Where are they going? Who is the man with his back to us? How did he end up in the diner? What is the waiter’s life like? What is causing his distress?

The light
By setting the scene on one of New York City’s oblique corners and surrounding the diner with glass, Hopper was able to exploit stark pictorial devices. First, the fluorescent light flooding the diner is the only light that illuminates the painting; in the absence of a streetlamp, it spills into the night through both windows onto both sides of the street corner. It throws a series of cast shadows onto the sidewalk and apartment buildings, but ultimately draws our attention back to the men and woman inside the diner. The angle also allows him to show the people in a mix of frontal and profile views, heightening the sense that no figure is really communicating with another.

This feeling can be understood by comparing Nighthawks to Hopper’s earlier painting Early Sunday Morning. Both paintings are set in front of the red brick apartments of New York’s Greenwich Village and show us an hour of the day when people are typically not awake. Like Nighthawks, which was created at the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II, Early Sunday Morning was also painted at a historically important moment, the beginning of the Great Depression. But despite their similarities, Early Sunday Morning produces a sense of ease in the viewer, not anxiety.

Detail: Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942

Partially, this is because of the flooding light of dawn. But Early Sunday Morning, with its frilly awnings, brightly colored barber’s pole, squat fire hydrant, and windows opening to meet the morning sun, presents a world that is about to bustle with life. Nighthawks shows the opposite. The windows of the shops and apartments are empty and dark. The only remnants of human activity outside the diner are a cash register in a shop window and a cigar advertisement above the glass pane. There is no clock in the restaurant, but the empty coffee tureens on the back counter betray the indecent hour of night. This is a world shut down. Because our characters are awake, they are alienated—not only from each other, but also from civilization itself.

A timeless feel
Nighthawks is one of Hopper’s New York City paintings, and the artist said that it was based on a real café. Many people have tried to find the exact setting of the painting, but have failed. In his wife’s diaries, she wrote that she and Hopper himself both served as models for the people in the painting. Despite these real-life details, the empty composition and flat, abstracting planes of color give the canvas a timeless feel, making it an object onto which one can project one’s own reality. Perhaps this is why it has lent itself to so well to many parodies, even appearing as a motif on an episode of The Simpsons.

When it was completed the canvas was bought almost immediately by the Art Institute of Chicago where it remains, and has been wildly popular ever since. The painting’s modern-day appeal can also be understood because of its ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia for an America of a time gone-by. Despite its inherent universality, the dress of the four people—the woman evoking a pin-up doll, the men in their well-tailored suits and hats, the worker in his soda jerk costume—as well as the “Phillies” advertisement, firmly plant the painting in a simpler past, making it a piece of Americana.

A subtle critique
But perhaps Nighthawks’ enduring popularity can be explained because of its subtle critique of the modern world, the world in which we all live. Despite its surface beauty, this world is one measured in cups of coffee, imbued with an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and a deep desire, but ultimate inability, to connect with those around us.


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