One of American art’s most recognisable paintings, ‘Nighthawks’ depicts late-night dining in Downtown New York. It was painted in 1942 and quickly sold to the Art Institute of Chicago for $3,000, and it has remained there since.
The use of the sharp corner in this painting is characteristic of Hopper’s style as this unusual perspective gave him the opportunity to paint part of the view as seen through two panes of glass. This can be seen in several other of his paintings including ‘Office in a Small City’. Another characteristic of Hopper’s work which is visible here is his interest in light and shadow. We are able to see the effect of man-made light on the surrounding darkness as the light from the diner is cast sharply into the surrounding streets.
Both the title of the painting and the location of the diner are ambiguous. ‘Nighthawks’ can be seen as simply a name for those late-night diners, or as a reference to the man at the bar who has a beak-shaped nose. The intended name for the painting was actually ‘Night Hawks’. There has been much speculation as to the actual location of the diner. It is commonly thought to be in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, which was Hopper’s own neighbourhood, although the corner has since been demolished. There has been talk of the diner being entirely fictitious, although Edward Hopper himself was quoted as saying ‘I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger’, suggesting that the painting was at least based on a real-life diner.
Edward Hopper kept a journal with his wife Josephine. He would draw sketches of his ideas for paintings and she would annotate the sketches with additional details to be referred to later. The entry for ‘Nighthawks’ gives us an insight into the artwork in its early stages of development:
“Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles 3/4 cross canvas at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre [sic] door into kitchen right. Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street at edge of stretch of top of window.”
Taking something ordinary and viewing it from a new angle has long been a way of creating innovative art. It gives the viewer a task, a problem to solve as they look at the artwork. The appreciation of beauty is not the only objective, they are also testing their powers of recognition. This can have two outcomes. The, at first unrecognisable, object or pattern can become more beautiful upon recognition. One sees beauty in something which usually appears ordinary. At the other end of the scale, a beautiful abstract artwork may lose some of its appeal and aesthetic qualities once we realise that the artwork depicts something with which we are already familiar.
The above represents a risk for the artist. Playing with a viewer’s expectations can produce varied results and ultimately affect their overall verdict on the piece. With the preferred outcome, this is an exciting way of viewing art which adds another level of enjoyment to the work.