The Art Institute has always collected the art of its time. Which means that since the museum opened in the late 1800s, it has always put a priority on acquiring art that was recently created. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, one of the museum’s most well known paintings, takes that to another level, as it joined the museum’s collection in 1942, the very year that it was painted.
In May of that year, Hopper himself wrote to Art Institute director Daniel Catton Rich 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.”
This pared down painting—notice the lack of trash in the street, as well as the empty counters in the diner—has a timeless, universal quality that transcends its particular locale. Fluorescent lights had just come into use in the early 1940s, and the all-night diner emits an eerie glow, like a beacon on the dark street corner. Hopper eliminated any reference to an entrance, and the viewer, drawn to the light, is shut out from the scene by a seamless wedge of glass. The four anonymous and uncommunicative night owls seem as separate and remote from the viewer as they are from one another. (The red-haired woman was actually modeled by the artist’s wife, Jo.)
Fun fact: What other famous—and often parodied—painting was acquired by the museum the year it was painted? None other than Grant Wood’s American Gothic.