Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (1942)

My Daily Art Display’s offering today is in complete contrast to Raphael’s Madonna which I gave you two days ago.  Today I have skipped almost four hundred and fifty years to look at a work of modern art by the American artist Edward Hooper.  It is entitled Nighthawks and portrays three people sitting in a downtown diner.  For Hopper it was to be his most famous painting and one of the most recognisable in American art.

Edward Hopper was born in Nyack, on the Hudson River, in the state of New York in 1882.  He was an outstanding American Realist and American Scene painter as well as a  printmaker.  He came from a middle-class background and was an able student at school where he developed a love of art from an early age.  His parents encouraged this love and helped him develop his talent for drawing.  At the age of seventeen he attended the New York Institute of Art and Design and remained there for six years.  In 1905 he went to work at an advertising agency where he was employed to design covers for trade magazines but he did not like this type of illustration work but like all of us, needed the money.   He managed to visit Europe on three occasions during which time he discovered and fell in love with works of Rembrandt and some of his contemporaries.  Whilst in Paris he spent a lot of his time painting café and street scenes, a hobby he carried on with when he returned to New York.  He became very interested in the Realist art genre.

It was in 1942, at the age of sixty that Hopper painted today’s work of art, Nighthawks.  The expression “nighthawk” is a word used to describe somebody who stays up late, often also termed a “night owl”.  The scene of his painting was inspired by one in Greenwich Village, Manhattan where Hopper lived for fifty four years.  There is a mood of despondency about this painting and this may be in part due to the fact that Hopper started this painting soon after Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese and the whole of America, after the initial shock, was in a mood of hopelessness and misery after such a loss of American lives.

The diner is probably not an up-market establishment due to the fact that the advertisement above the window is for “Phillies” which is a brand of popular but cheap cigars, which were usually on sale at gas stations and convenience stores.  The three “nighthawks” are bathed in a swathe of fluorescent light which also lights up the corner of the deserted street.  There is an Art Deco feel to the diner.  As is the case in this work, Hopper often painted pictures which illustrated the loneliness of life with motel rooms and gas stations being the setting for some of his works.  Here we see a couple at the bar with their hands almost, but not quite, touching.   They remind me of Bogart and Bacall.  The third diner sits alone around the corner of the bar.  There is a definite sense of isolation and loneliness about the people in the picture.  Instead of sitting comfortably at home with their families they are in an impersonal friendless late-night diner.  It is interesting to note that the picture does not show any obvious entrance to the diner and thus it gives a feel of entrapment as if the people are prisoners of their loneliness.  Hopper himself disagreed with the idea that he had made the diner a lonely-looking venue stating:

“…I didn’t see it as particularly lonely…….Unconsciously, probably; I was painting the loneliness of a big city…”

Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Gottfried Helnwein (1984)

Hopper’s iconic painting was reproduced many times.  One of the most famous is probably Gottfried Helnwein’s painting entitled Boulevard of Broken Dreams in which the bar tender is Elvis, the couple Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Munroe and the solitary figure, with his back to us, James Dean.  This was sold extensively as a poster.  I suppose that because we know the characters in this picture and we know of their lives, maybe the feeling of loneliness of these “nighthawks” is not so obvious at first glance but maybe their tragic fates were meant to add to the mood of their diner.

I will leave you with a poem, written by Wolf Wondratscheck, based on Hopper’s painting Nighthawks in which he reasons as to why the customers came to the diner and what will happen next

 It is night
and the city is deserted.
The lucky ones are at home,
or more likely
there are none left.

 In Hopper’s painting, four people remain
the usual cast, so-to-speak:
the man behind the counter, two men and a woman.
Art lovers, you can stone me
but I know this situation pretty well.

 Two men and one woman
as if this were mere chance.
You admire the painting’s composition
but what grabs me is the erotic pleasure
of complete emptiness.

 They don’t say a word, and why should they?
Both of them smoking, but there is no smoke.
I bet she wrote him a letter.
Whatever it said, he’s no longer the man
who’d read her letters twice.

 The radio is broken.
The air conditioner hums.
I hear a police siren wail.
Two blocks away in a doorway, a junkie groans
and sticks a needle in his vein.
That’s how the part you don’t see looks.

 The other man is by himself
remembering a woman;
she wore a red dress, too.
That was ages ago.
He likes knowing women like this still exist
but he’s no longer interested.

 What might have been
between them, back then?
I bet he wanted her.
I bet she said no.

 No wonder, art lovers,
that this man is turning his back on you.