Hopper’s most famous painting was inspired by a diner located on a wedge-shaped corner of Greenwich Avenue in Hopper’s New York neighborhood. In order to depict this scene, he explained, “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger.” The round stools, placed at wide intervals, and the spare counters, on which stand a few coffee mugs, sugar jars, napkin holders, and an abandoned water glass, are rendered with deadpan precision, emphasizing the empty space between them. A sense of disquiet seems to echo the figures’ enigmatic relationship with one another. Do the four people know each other, or have they come into the diner to take refuge in the silent company of strangers?
Nighthawks exemplifies Hopper’s facility at capturing the reality of modern life and representing emotional states through physical settings. It is a quiet, introspective picture. The architecture defines the composition, and the light orders, balances, and clarifies it. Hopper’s aesthetic vision, which has become associated with a particular brand of American realism, was the product of a rich combination of influences. Like most of his fellow Americans, the artist was an avid moviegoer, and the cinematic techniques of early film noir, including the prominent use of angles, shadows, patterns of light, and scenes shot through and framed by windows and doorways, made their way into his pictures. In books, as in movies, Hopper was drawn to works created in spare, strong, and visual terms. He admired Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” for instance, most of which takes place at the counter of a diner, and modern detective novels, in which a striving for simplicity came from an unsentimental desire to convey the truth. Merging these influences with certain qualities of French Impressionism, Postimpressionism, and Surrealism, Nighthawks is appealing in its distillation of subject and its unmistakable Americanness.
On May 13, 1942, Hopper wrote to Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, that he was “very much pleased that you like my Nighthawks well enough to acquire it for the Art Institute. It is, I believe, one of the very best things I have painted. I seem to have come nearer to saying what I want to say in my work, this past winter, than I ever have before.” Reworked and parodied countless times, Nighthawks has become an icon of American culture.
Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. Friends of American Art Collection.