Above all, this is a work of voyeurism. The audience feels outside, looking in, from the empty street. We are as alone as the people in the scene.
Edward Hopper’s iconic painting has inspired cinematographers since it was first shown in 1942. The dead of night. A moment of loneliness for an assortment of city dwellers. It is simple yet mysterious. It uses Hopper’s trademark Realism but it leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
Hopper manages to tell a story with a still. Well, he tells enough of a story and then lets us fill in the gaps. A method used in all his art: the viewer has to work out the story, there is no easy handholding here.
In Nighthawks, three figures seated in a brightly lit diner, which is inspired by a diner in Hopper’s neighbourhood of Greenwich Village, Manhattan. People are sat around the countertop and a bartender is serving the drinks.
The wide-angle perspective emits a film-like feel; the scene flows horizontally, not vertically. Hopper puts us outside the diner, looking through the sheet window. The viewpoint suggests the observed are unaware of being watched.
The angle let’s him include the deserted streets outside which are flooded with the bright light from the diner. Harsh lighting combines with the use of sharp angling to give this a mean, chiselled feel. New York City. Tough streets. We are positioned well enough back so they don’t see us. Just as well.
Hopper confessed that “I was painting the loneliness of a large city”. He wasn’t just painting what he saw: he drew on work such as Van Gogh’s Night Café which had been exhibited alongside Hopper’s work twice.
Hopper was also inspired by 1930s gangster movies and Ernest Hemingway’s book “The Killers” which he liked so much that he wrote to a magazine to praise it. The title Nighthawks was his wife’s idea; the hawk conjures up the idea of killing.
When the original sketches are compared with the final painting, it is clear that Hopper moved the people apart to emphasise separateness. The woman touches the hand of the man only so slightly…in fact, are they touching? What is their relationship? Does he care? Does he? And who is the guy with his back to us? And what is the bony server saying to occupy his customers?
Hopper prepared the painting with a series of sketches as if he was ‘storyboarding’ for a film. Take a look below:
Hopper storyboarding Nighthawks