Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper
Meaning and Interpretation of American Realist Genre Painting

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Nighthawks (detail)
By Edward Hopper.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

Nighthawks (1942)


America at War
Explanation of Other Modern American Paintings


Name: Nighthawks (1942)
Artist: Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
Movement/Style: Realism
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by American realists
like Hopper, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper, a major contributor to American art of the 20th century, is best-known for his edgy genre paintings, many of which could easily be stills from a movie. Consisting mostly of commonplace urban scenes, featuring no more than two or three individuals, and few if any distractions, they capture the isolation of city life like no other form of modern art in America. Inspired by street photography and movies (he was an ardent moviegoer), Hopper was also a fan of Impressionism and its focus on 'the moment', something he encountered on two visits to Paris in 1906 and 1909. In addition to his signature style of city painting, he produced some outstanding coastal views - see, for instance, The Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) at Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Although a long-term resident of New York, Hopper was born and raised in the small upstate town of Nyack, and is associated with American Scene painting - a style characterized by its use of specifically American imagery. Undoubtedly one of the greatest 20th century painters of America, he created a whole new vision of the individual in the city and revitalized the modern genre painting in the process.

Edward Hopper's influential teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929), leader of the Ashcan School of American realism, sent his students out onto the streets of New York "to paint the city and city life as it really is". Mostly a studio painter himself, Henri rarely applied the formula to his own work. However, his fellow painters like John Sloan (1871-1951) and George Bellows (1882-1925), did follow the rule, producing a rough and tough kind of painting that, in the case of Bellows, was an important precursor of Abstract Expressionism (1950s). Hopper, too, despite the fact that he chose themes that fitted Henri's prescription, was also a studio painter. He worked mostly from drawings, taking a long time to evolve a design for the picture that was later modified — sometimes quite substantially — during the often highly attenuated process of completing the painting.

Hopper's stunningly cinematic picture Nighthawks is one of the most reproduced paintings in the history of art. It is hard to know precisely why, except, perhaps, for the fact that we all recognize something of its truthfulness from within our own life experience. It is a picture that speaks of the alienating presence of the modern city. Several individuals - the nighthawks of the title - are gathered together in the brightly lit window of a downtown diner or cafe that spills its pale bluish light out into the street, casting a shadow on the pavement, yet barely holding a threatening inrush of darkness at bay. Beyond its reach, anything might be happening in the darkness. Psychologically speaking, these people are isolates, thrown together as a group, but also locked within themselves, prey to their own fears and fancies. It is a picture of city life in the small hours when an unnatural silence and an uncanny stillness take hold, tugging suggestively at the senses of hearing and vision.

A typically minimalist composition, its geometric curves, accentuated by the Art Deco style facade and the stage-like quality of the lighting, creates a theatrical setting for the Bogart-and-Bacall couple at the counter. The cafe itself was based on a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, Manhattan, Hopper's neighbourhood for over fifty years. Hopper himself posed in a mirror for the two men, while his wife Jo was the model for the girl.



Hopper relied heavily on preliminary drawing and sketching, typically done while walking the streets of New York. These sketches would then be amplified in the studio, and the whole composition planned in detail before making a start on the actual painting. In his notes for the picture, Hopper describes everything, as if writing the screenplay for a film. He details the interior of the diner, down to the cherry wood counter and the jade green tiles at the base of the window. He characterizes the four figures, including the back view of a "sinister" stranger, the light inside the diner and the colours and light of the street outside. Almost everything was pre-planned.

It is said that Hopper's rather flat and undemonstrative way of painting is at its most eloquent in Nighthawks because it holds the image at the very edge of realization. There is certainly a sense in which his rendering of architecture here is more model-like than real. The cafe seems thin, insubstantial, as if constructed out of cut and folded paper. Arguably, though, it is this very lack of substance that gives the image its dramatic force. The plight of the 'nighthawks' lies in their vulnerability and we register this fact almost instantly. The apparent fragility of their illuminated place of refuge stands in stark contrast to the surrounding darkness that seems to come alive with unknowable presences even as we look.

The picture took about six weeks to complete and was completed on January 21st, 1942. Within months it was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago for $3,000. After gallery commission fees and costs, Hopper's share was just under $2,000.

America at War

Perhaps the symbolism of Nighthawks derives from the events of late 1941-42. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7th, 1941, and President Roosevelt declared war on Japan the next day. Early in 1942 the United States suffered a second, humiliating setback when the Japanese compelled the surrender of their garrison in the Philippines. For the very first time in their history, a defiant American people felt threatened and under siege.

Explanation of Other Modern American Paintings

Black Abstraction (1927) by Georgia O'Keeffe.
Biomorphic abstraction at its best.

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood.
Iconic portrait painting of an Iowan farming couple in Eldon.

Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) by Grant Wood.
Iconic American history painting.

Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe.
Symbolist painting from New Mexico.


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