Nighthawks by Edward Hopper is one of the most recognisable twentieth century paintings. It’s an atmospheric picture of an all-night diner with three customers and a worker. What might we learn by absorbing a few facts and then looking hard at the work? What might be revealed by writing these thoughts down?
A little context: When Hopper painted this (1942) the war was still on and American art was yet to find its defining style. Abstract Expressionism was to grow out of a European tradition linked to Surrealism through dreamscapes and automatic writing (I’m being deliberately reductive), and Pop would follow that celebrating / reflecting the materialist excess available in post-war America. Rather than pre-figure either of these movements, Hopper simply documents the vernacular details of American life. Little in his oeuvre is spectacular and much is melancholy.
So how is this particular picture constructed? Formally, it’s easy to break the image down using the ‘rule of thirds’. The diner occupies the middle and right hand side of the picture, with all the occupants sitting more or less on the boundary between the bottom and middle thirds. The diner is set diagonally, which creates a large space to the left of the picture. This space is filled only with the light and shadows from the diner. The central section of the painting has only one occupant (ever so slightly off-centre), who has his back to us. The other three people are all in the right hand section. The couple – who don’t seem to have much to do with each other, though their hands might just be touching – are echoed by the two metal boilers to their left. The employee’s profile adds some detail and interest between these two pairs. None of the people’s eyes meet. A blank brown door acts as a ‘stop’ on the bright yellow wall, not allowing our eyes to drift away.
The yellow is worth noting as without it the picture would be entirely gloomy. The use of yellow on the internal walls and, crucially, on the ceiling brightens the whole picture, providing contrast and illumination, emphasising the bubble-like quality of the diner. Oddly, there are no visible lights. Hopper’s compositional coup-de-grace is the bright shard of yellow in the ceiling, reaching across two-thirds of the picture. If his viewpoint had been any higher it would be lost, any lower and it would dominate.
The shape of the picture is interesting. It’s not quite a double square (152cm x 84cm) and reminiscent of a cinema screen. The large plate window of the diner is in a similar proportion. There is no reflection on this large window. It’s almost like it isn’t there, which gives the whole scene a strange clarity. On the curved glass that forms the corner of the diner, there is some indication in a blue-grey of the glass. As an aside, I believe this is the only instance of such an effect anywhere in his work.
It’s worth noticing how much has been left out of the image. The only light is from the diner. No other building has a light on. The shop opposite appears to have nothing in its window and there’s no street furniture or advertising. The only text is on the diner itself. No posters, no litter, no cars, no street-markings. This emptiness (even the diner’s interior is blank), adds to the sense of isolation as there’s no reference to community or escape. These people are here, separate from one another, linked only by accident.
Turning to the way the paint is applied, we can see, even in reproduction, that Hopper isn’t using thick impasto or expressive, gestural, strokes. There’s something matter-of-fact about the way he paints, which ties in thematically with the subject.
So, having looked at what’s in, and not in, the painting, can we speculate on any ‘meaning’? Aside from the initial feeling of isolation (the diner within the city and the people within the diner), there isn’t much to divine or tell. All we have is a moment, captured by Hopper and refined and edited in the studio. We might speculate on a narrative involving the protagonists -and we wouldn’t be the first. (See songwriter Tom Waits’ pre-Swordfishtrombones career), but it would remain a speculation. Though this might look like a still from a movie, there’s no narrative here, just a glimpse into something that we can’t know.