Amid World War II in 1942, Edward Hopper painted one of his most celebrated masterpieces,“Nighthawks”. A rectangular 5-foot wide canvas presents a corner diner in an urban environment frozen in the dark hours of the night, a scene lit by ceiling-mounted fluorescents eclipsed by a long lip of a flat roof balanced on thin beams bracing tall, wide glass windows. We’re voyeurs to the diner’s world, catching four figures dressed in black, blue, red, and white, who command our attention from the vacant street outside. Warm yellow walls illuminate the interior against dark blues and muddled greens outside while dancing facets of architecture guide us to the woman in red studying an object in her upturned hand.
We enter the small world of urban dwellers, all gazing. Their sight-lines intersect toward what appears to be folded money being inspected in the woman’s hand, yet we can’t be sure — the lack of inscription leaves the viewer trapped in a paralleled wonder. The style of their crisp, clean, and flatly colored clothes is echoed by angular walls that close them in. A broad concealed light casts shadows on their faces accentuating cheekbones; the man’s eyes shaded by a fedora’s dipped brim. A smokeless cigarette points from his deft hand in front of hers, almost touching, but a few inches of overlapping space reveals they aren’t — a peculiar suggestion of romance. Her coffee cup exhales steam; his only a cold reflection on the counter. Across the long wooden counter that zags toward us, a lone empty glass stands next to a napkin holder with salt & pepper shakers, offering symbols for the waiter‘s attention, but whose glass is it? Maybe ours. Then, we notice a man in a dark suit and wide-brimmed hat with his back against us, proportionally apart from the main focal point of the painting yet directly in the center of the composition. Edward Hopper was known for wearing a wide-brimmed fedora, so the artist’s presence is plausible. Looking closer, he lifts a glass with his right arm above its shadow on the counter, newspaper folded flat beneath his left. The front page predictably informing the insomniac city of lost and won firefights of sleepless soldiers from worried families.
The rhythmic geometric planes of folded newspaper, dollar bills, dramatically lit architecture, and crisp fabric raises the volume of the repeated stoic facial expressions that hold a rhythmic silence of introspection. Hopper’s masterpiece presents a quintessential moment of wrinkled stillness against the melodrama of WWII across the ocean, reminding us the quiet night is never simple.
- Hopper, Edward, “Nighthawks”, 1942, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/111628
- Hopper, Edward. “Untitled (Self-Portrait)”, 1925–1930, oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of Modern Art, https://whitney.org/collection/works/6068
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About the Author
Joshua Hoering is a writer, designer, educator, artist, and speaker based in Chicago, Illinois. He’s currently working on an MFA in Graphic Design & Visual Experience at the Savannah College of Art & Design.