Colin C. Njemanze. Nighthawks. Nighthawks 84.1 cm × 152.4 cm (33.1 in × 60 in). Artist Biography.
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Edward Hopper (July 22, 1882 – May 15, 1967) was a prominent American realist painter and printmaker. While most popularly known for his oil paintings, he was equally proficient as a watercolorist and printmaker in etching. In both his urban and rural scenes, his spare and finely calculated renderings reflected his personal vision of modern American life.
The term "night-hawk", like "night owl," is used figuratively to describe someone who stays up late. The scene was supposedly inspired by a diner (since demolished) in Greenwich Village, Hopper's home neighborhood in Manhattan. The now-vacant lot most usually associated with the former location is known as Mulry Square, at the intersection of Seventh Avenue South, Greenwich Avenue, and West 11th Street. However, according to the New York Times, this cannot be the location of the diner that inspired the painting, as a gas station was occupying that lot from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Hopper began painting it immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sunday, December 7, 1941. After this event there was a widespread feeling of gloominess across the country, a feeling that is portrayed in the painting. The urban street is empty outside the diner, and inside none of the three patrons is apparently looking at or talking to the others; all are lost in their own thoughts. Two are a couple, while the third is a man sitting alone, with his back to the viewer. The diner's sole attendant, looking up from his work, appears to be peering out the window past the customers.His age is indeterminate.
The corner of the diner is curved; curved glass connects the large expanse of glass on its two sides. Weather is understood to be warm, based on clothing worn by the patrons. No overcoats are in evidence; the woman's blouse is short-sleeved. Across the street are what appear to be open windows on the second story. The light from the restaurant floods out onto the street outside, and a sliver of light casts its way into one of the windows.
This portrayal of modern urban life as empty or lonely is a common theme throughout Hopper's work. It is sharply outlined by the fact that the man with his back to us appears more lonely because of the couple sitting next to him. If one looks closely, it becomes apparent that there is no way out of the bar area, as the three walls of the counter form a triangle that traps the attendant. It is also notable that the diner has no visible door leading to the outside, which illustrates the idea of confinement and entrapment. Hopper denied that he had intended to communicate this in Nighthawks, but he admitted that "unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city." At the time of the painting, fluorescent lights had just been developed, perhaps contributing to why the diner is casting such an eerie glow upon the almost pitch black outside world. An advertisement for Phillies cigars is featured on top of the diner.
Hopper was interested both in the human experience -- and often the isolation of urban life, which is partly what "Nighthawks" is all about -- but also in a style that abstracted and purified human experience and even buildings and natural objects. In other words, the painting is not JUST about human isolation, anxiety in the context of the war in its early days (this is a painting of 1942), and perhaps loneliness, but also about Hopper's particular aesthetics -- the style that attracted him. Such a subject, a late-night cafe, allowed scope for this style.