Nighthawks – Edward Hopper

In the news recently I saw an article about a man who had paid £7500 for a dress for his wife.  While extravagant, not totally extraordinary, until I ready the rest of the article.  The dress wasn’t a physical dress.  It was a digital dress, which had been edited on to her so that she would look amazing.  The man explained that he saw this as an investment and very soon everyone would be doing this.  At this point I laughed, as I couldn’t really imagine anyone paid that much money to have a dress photoshopped onto themselves, but as I thought about it, it came to me that actually this is ideal for travellers.  You could pack light, dress however you wanted, and then have a digital wardrobe that you edit on to yourself when you get home, so that you look fabulous in every photo.

This seems quite hard work to me, as there is definitely something for me about getting ready to go out for a day.  I want to look well presented when I am out and about, but I guess this is what living in the digital age brings us.  The ability to go out looking less than our best and then fix it all in editing.

While there isn’t necessarily an issue with this, photos and paintings are historic prints of what happened, and it has been said in many memes that in 100 years time there will just be lots of photos of people with digital dog faces over their own rather than the factual photography that we see from 100 years in our past.

This thought of everything being picture perfect in every image annoys me, I like the imperfections, but similar can be said for painters, they don’t paint the absolute truth they paint with an artist licence which means they can alter colours and amend faces and figures to be presented in a perfect view to their mind’s eye.

Edward Hopper was born in 1882 in New York.  He was brought up in a comfortable family setting as was a was a good student, showing the early signs of being an artist at the age of 5.  His parents encouraged this, keeping him in supplies and learning material to hone his skills.  In 1899 he started a correspondence course in art and soon transferred to the New York school of art and design.  He studied there for 6 years learning about oil painting, he took inspiration from Manet and Degas, yet found it shocking to sketch from live models.

In 1905 Hopper started working part time creating advertising for trade magazines which he came to detest, yet continued through necessity until around 1920.  He did have some breaks from this during this time, where he went to study the art scene in France, yet didn’t appear to become overly involved with the other artists there, stating that he “didn’t remember having heard of Picasso at all”.

From about 1919 onwards Hopper started to gain public recognition for some of his etchings although he had received some recognition for previous work, it was mostly for the very thing he detested doing (notably winning an award in 1919 for his “Smash the Hun” poster).

In 1924 Hopper married his wife Josephine, who was his polar opposite.  Where Hopper was quiet, tall and reserved, she was short, loud and controversial.  Despite their dynamic differences, she embraced his reclusive lifestyle and managed his work and appointments.  Josephine was probably the driving force and his life companion as well as the female model for most of his work.

Hopper died in 1967 and his wife died 10 months after him, leaving his estate to museums.

“Nighthawks” is certainly one of Hopper’s most recognised works.  It was painted in 1942 in oils and months after it was completed was sold for $3000 (equivalent to $47000 today).  The picture portrays people in a downtown diner late at night.  There is a couple at one side of the bar and a lone man at the other, while a blonde server is busy in the centre of the diner.

Shortly after the marriage of the Hopper’s, they began to keep a journal, which he would make pencil sketches in to, with technical notes, and she would then add more detail around mood and feel of the setting so that he could paint them later.


The detail from the journal about “Nighthawks” reads:-

“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 cross 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.”

Interestingly Josephine had noted the shape of the man’s nose (beak) giving the painting it’s title.

There is an inherent loneliness to this painting, as all the people within the scene seem somehow distanced from each other.   When asked about this Hopper denied that he purposely infused this with the ideals of human isolation, but even by putting the people in the scene within the diner it distances them from the audience so he acknowledge that he probably did in some way unconsciously show the loneliness of a large city.

While “Nighthawks” has a really interesting social aspect to it, there is also a very interesting display of light, the large plate glass windows allow the light from the diner to spill out into the darkness.  It adds to the eerie feel, as the light is too clinical to be welcoming.  There is also an unseen street light which illuminates the 3 windows on the upper level opposite the diner, giving the contrasts between different types of light and reflecting the feel that you never truly experience darkness when you are in a city.

This whole painting shows things that would never be visible in daylight, as usually the streets would be bustling and the diner full, the reflections of light would be different as they would be diffused by daylight.  Some have said that this painting was inspired by Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night”, through the similar lighting and emptiness due to the time of day.  Hopper would have definitely seen this painting as it was in an exhibition during the January of 1942 in New York and this could have sparked his interest in the distinct types of lighting.


Cafe Terrace at Night – Van Gogh 1888

Hopper was an observer of the world, and his art was painted with a realism that his audiences could relate very easily too.  Hopper was able to present to his viewers details that they may never see or have noticed, and while their journal reflects a great deal of technical detail, the artist still managed to present his unconscious take on the world.

Have you seen “Nighthawks”? Why don’t you tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?

3 thoughts on “Nighthawks – Edward Hopper

Add yours

  1. It’s like they’re in a fishtank. Seems more austere than lonely. Wouldn’t there normally be placards or posters, bills of some kind on the windows, somewhere?

    I do like the note of instructions; as if the pair made a singular artistic whole.


  2. My favourite painting. Ever. I’ll often deliver a lecture on Hopper. Have you looked at George Bellow’s work? Another astonishing American Realist. His boxing images are literally ‘Man as meat.’


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