Analysis of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks"
Edward Hopper, “Nighthawks”, 1942, oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm (33 1/8 x 60 in.), Art Institute of Chicago.

Edward Hopper, “Nighthawks”, 1942, oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm (33 1/8 x 60 in.), Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1942, amid World War II, Edward Hopper painted one of his most celebrated masterpieces, titled “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 fluorescents eclipsed by long flat lines of a horizontal roof balanced on thin beams between tall, wide glass windows.  We're voyeurs to the diner’s world, witnessing four figures dressed in black, blue, red, and white, commanding our attention against the vacant street outside.  Warm yellow walls of the room illuminate against the cool dark blues and muddled greens outside; dancing facets of architecture leading us to the woman in red studying a green object in her upturned hand.

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Upon closer inspection, we enter a small world of the urban dwellers, gazing.  Their sightlines intersect in different depths of field toward what appears to be 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 questioning observation.  The style of their crisp clothes, clean and flatly colored is echoed by angular walls that close them in.  The light casts shadows on their faces accentuating cheekbones; the man’s eyes shaded by a fedora's brim.  A smokeless cigarette points from his hand in front of hers, almost touching hers, but the depth of space reveals they aren't, a dramatic suggestion of romance.  Her coffee cup exhales steam; his only a reflection against the counter.  Across the long wooden surface that loops toward us, a lone empty glass sits next to a napkin holder with salt & pepper shakers, offering symbols for the waiter, couple drinking coffee, and perhaps the viewer...  Then, we notice a man in a dark suit and fedora with his back against us, 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 suggestion of the artist present is plausible.  Looking closer, he lifts a glass above his shadow on the counter with a newspaper folded flat beneath his left elbow.

The rhythmic geometric planes of folded newspaper and dollar bills, dramatically lit architecture, and crisp fashion contrast the detailed stoic faces which hold a pause of introspection.  Hopper’s masterpiece presents a moment of wrinkled stillness against the melodrama of WWII across the ocean in Europe, reminding us the quiet night is never simple.

Works Cited

  1. Hopper, Edward, Nighthawks, 1942, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/111628

Joshua Hoering