15 Things You Might Not Know About Nighthawks

Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection.
Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection.

The quiet night scene of Edward Hopper’s most renowned painting sticks in the mind of anyone who sees it and feels familiar to anyone who’s taken an art history class. It may seem straightforward, but this deceptively simple piece holds a lot of secrets. 

1. HOPPER’S WIFE WAS ITS first art historian.

Josephine Hopper (née Nivison) oversaw a shared journal, where she and her husband took notes on his paintings. This is how we know the precise date of Nighthawks' completion (January 21, 1942), and various other details, like that the painting was originally titled Night Hawks

2. Nighthawks was an instant classic. 

When Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, first laid eyes on the painting a few short months after Hopper put on the final touches, he declared it was as "fine as Homer"—referencing the 19th century American landscape painter. 

Rich was quick to purchase Nighthawks for the Art Institute for $3000 ($43,200.37 adjusting for inflation). The Hopper classic is still on display in the Institute’s galleries. 

3. It's bigger than you MIGHT expect. 

A quiet scene that could be the beginning or end of a million different stories, Nighthawks seems like it might be a small painting like the Mona Lisa. But in fact, it measures 33 1/8 inches by 60 inches,  roughly 2.75 feet by 5 feet. 

4. The TITLE Nighthawks may have been A NOD TO one of the diner's patrons. 

In Josephine's notes, she wrote a description of one of the customers: "Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette." This note suggests that the prominent nose of this patron makes the painting’s title a bit more literal.  

5. Both Edward and Josephine Hopper were models for Nighthawks. 

In a letter to his sister Marion, Josephine shared, "Ed has just finished a very fine picture—a lunch counter at night with 3 figures. Night Hawks would be a fine name for it. E. posed for the two men in a mirror and I for the girl. He was about a month and half working on it."

6. Hopper storyboarded the painting ahead of Nighthawks' creation.

Hopper became an avid sketch artist when he was just 10 years old, and as an adult he could often be found prowling the streets of New York, sketch pad and pencil in hand. While sketches are often the first step for a painting's creation, Hopper took it a step further by sketching storyboards to pick the precise moments he wanted to immortalize in the final painting. A 2013 exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art displayed 200 Hopper sketches, including 19 that led to Nighthawks, clearly laying out the work's evolution. 

7. A HEMINGWAY SHORT STORY MAY HAVE HELPED INSPIRE THE PAINTING. 

Noted Hopper biographer Gail Levin has said, "Nighthawks was inspired by Hemingway's short story 'The Killers,' which Hopper read in Scribner's magazine and liked so much when it first came out, that he wrote a fan letter to Scribner's. He said that this writer was so much better than the rest and it was unusual that it wasn't sentimental or saccharin like so many stories. But that short story has the sense of something about to happen, and it never does. In a sense, Hopper's paintings are just like that. So that enables writers and filmmakers–fiction writers and poets, and other artists, perhaps too–to project their own imagination…and the viewer in general." 

8. There may be some influence from Van Gogh's Café At Night. 

Based on the similar theme and concentration on the play of light at night, Levin has also proposed that the famous Vincent Van Gogh piece may have sparked ideas in Hopper. Interestingly, Café at Night was exhibited in New York in January of 1942, right as Hopper was working on Nighthawks. It's probable that Hopper would have seen Van Gogh’s painting, as his own works were also on display at the same venue. 

9. A popular reading of the piece focuses on "wartime isolation." 

Its characters are separated from the outside world by the light and windows Hopper carefully rendered. There's no door shown that would allow the viewer conceivable entrance into this lonely nighttime world. And even in their shared space, the characters are close without touching. Painted right after the American entry into World War II, Nighthawks can be seen as an illustration of the chilling effects of that world-changing conflict.

10. But For Hopper, it was about feeling alone in a crowd. 

Many of the artist’s works reflected the isolation that could be felt amid the bustle of New York City. Of Nighthawks, the New York native said, "Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

11. The diner's flUorescent light MADE HOPPER’S JOB TRICKIER.

In the early 1940s, commercial use of fluorescent lighting was still a relatively new phenomenon. To properly capture its luminance, Hopper experimented with a zinc white paint instead of a lead white one. However, in a lengthy interview recorded on June 17, 1959, Hopper explained how the zinc white ultimately cracked, demanding a renovation where it was replaced by the lead white. Because of this bad experience, Hopper never used zinc white again. 

12. Hopper claimed THE Nighthawks diner was based on a real place. 

He was cagey about naming the actual eatery, though. His only clue: "[Nighthawks] was suggested by a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet." 

13. The actual location of this inspiration is a matter of debate. 

Popular opinion favors Mulry Square, a small triangular lot at Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue. However, historical records show that a gas station occupied the lot in the early 1940s, not a diner. 

In 2014, a restaurant on Greenwich Street declared itself Nighthawks' inspiration after a Chicago native wandered in and noted the similarities between the place's layout and the famous painting. This is how Classic's Café at 679 Greenwich Street came to change its name to Nighthawks. 

14. The Nighthawks diner is likely an amalgamation OF SEVERAL SPOTS. 

In May 2013, New York Magazine set out to track down the real inspiration for Nighthawks, scouring streets and historical photographs to settle the discussion once and for all. They ultimately determined Hopper's picture-perfect diner was made up of various elements of Manhattan architecture. These components include a glass-and-steel storefront on 11th Street, the curve of the Flatiron Building, and a long-gone restaurant called Crawford Lunch. Fittingly, a 3D version of Nighthawks was created within a display window of the Flatiron Building in the summer of 2013.

15. Nighthawks has inspired countless other artists. 

As one of the most iconic works in the history of American art, Nighthawks has popped up throughout pop culture. In the fine arts, you can see its inspiration in George Segal's sculpture The Diner, Roger Brown's painting Puerto Rican Wedding, Banksy's Nighthawks and Gottfried's Helnwein's Boulevard of Broken Dreams, which populated Phillie's diner with tragic celebrities like James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. 

Poet Wolf Wondratschek and novelist Joyce Carol Oates both wrote works named for Nighthawks. American singer-songwriter Tom Waits named his 1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner and threw his own spin on the painting by placing himself in a similar scenario on the record's cover. Nighthawks classic scene is alluded to in films like Dario Argento's Deep Red, Wim Wenders’s The End of Violence, James Foley's Glengarry Glen Ross, and Herbert Ross' Pennies From Heaven. Plus it influenced the aesthetic of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Alex Proyas' Dark City.

Art

This Delightfully Ugly Christmas Sweater Features a Light-Up Bob Ross Head

Spencer's
Spencer's

The only thing better than bringing the benevolent ghost of Bob Ross to your Christmas party—which, by all means, you should definitely do if you somehow know him—is sporting a sweater emblazoned with his bushy-haired head.

The blue cotton sweater from Spencer’s is trimmed in red and patterned with snowflakes and some appropriately happy little evergreen trees. But most of the sweater's front is taken up by a delightfully large replica of Bob Ross’s face, complete with his characteristically kind eyes and fuzzy facial hair.

bob ross ugly christmas sweater
Spencer's

Those details are enough to make the garment your one-way ticket to a first-place ribbon in the Christmas sweater competition, but there’s one last unforgettable feature that will surely warm the heart of every Grinch, Scrooge, and Hans Gruber in a six-mile radius: Bob Ross is draped with a strand of charming Christmas lights that actually light up.

bob ross ugly christmas sweater
Spencer's

The crew neck sweater is unisex, so you should order a size down if you’re looking for a more fitted look. It’ll definitely feel like a warm hug regardless of what size you order, and you can easily layer it over a thick thermal shirt if you’re venturing around the block for a carol or two. And whether you’re braving cold weather or just eating Christmas cookies on your own couch, the sweater pairs perfectly with these Bob Ross slipper socks.

Get your very own happy little sweater for $42 from Spencer’s.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Meet Isabelle de Borchgrave, the Belgian Artist Who Recreates Historical Fashion Using Paper

From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

When you walk into the exhibition space at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film right now, you’re met with a breathtaking homage to the history of fashion. Mannequins are dressed in everything from the court gowns of Queen Elizabeth I to the crinoline tutus of the Ballets Russes, and the overall impression is one of almost otherworldly beauty.

From across the room, you can see silk pooling at the feet of some figures, while light glances off the beaded bodices of others. But if you get within about a foot of the mannequins, you might notice that it isn’t silk at all—and those aren’t beads, either.

Actually, it’s paper.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

The all-paper ensembles in the “Fashioning Art From Paper” exhibition were created by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, who decided at age 14 that she would very much like to leave traditional school behind and study drawing instead. Her parents agreed, and de Borchgrave spent the next three years sketching nude models at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels. Though she tells Mental Floss that the repetition no doubt taught her how to draw, the rest of her arts education was left mostly up to her.

So she visited museums, letting the art inform and inspire her own work, and she soon developed an interest in fashion that she’s been cultivating ever since. To de Borchgrave, her lack of formal training in fashion is a creative asset.

“I never studied fashion—that means I stay really free,” she tells Mental Floss. She began making vibrant hand-painted dresses and other outfits, which she’d either sell or wear herself.

Then, in 1994, a fateful visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art sparked an idea that would alter the course of her career. After seeing a retrospective for French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, de Borchgrave—who, at that point, had been drawing on paper and painting on fabrics for years—began to wonder how she’d recreate certain designs using only paper and paint.

“I was so touched by the beauty, by the elegance, by the fabrics, and I wanted to have everything for me,” she says. It seemed like the perfect way to remain in the realm of fashion, while liberating herself from the demands of consumers. And, in theory, her paper reconstructions of garments really are just for her.

“When I finish a dress, I put it in a room. I don’t show it to anybody,” she says. “But I feel better, because I have done something I can be proud of.”

Over the last few decades, however, word has gotten out about the extraordinary paper gowns, and they’ve now been displayed in museums all over the world. At the SCAD FASH exhibition, the ensembles are divided into categories that each reflect a different era and inspiration, spanning about 500 years of fashion history.

Several ensembles from de Borchgrave's first sculpture series, “Papiers à la Mode,” are included in the exhibition. To create "à la Mode,” she collaborated with theatre costume designer Rita Brown to determine how best to manipulate paper, paint, and glue to mimic fabrics and patterns from the late 16th century all the way up through the 1920s. Though the more delicate fabrics might require specialty paper—for some lace trimmings and veils, for example, she orders a thin, gauzy paper from England—she primarily works with an inexpensive paper usually used for wrapping chocolate in Belgium.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Recreating ruffled collars, gold embroidery, and intricate designs with paper and paint seems difficult enough even if you could inspect the original garments with a magnifying glass and your own two hands—but de Borchgrave doesn’t often have that luxury. While some of her sculptures in "Papiers à la Mode" are modeled after actual clothing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and other costume collections around the world, many are based on paintings alone.

Queen Elizabeth I’s court dress, for example, framed with lace and decorated with various flowers and animals, was inspired by Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of the queen from 1599.

elizabeth i portrait with isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
Ellen Gutoskey (left), Workshop of Nicholas Hilliard (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

And after seeing François Boucher’s 1756 painting of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV and something of a French fashion icon herself, de Borchgrave constructed her own version of the resplendent ribbon- and rose-adorned gown.

portrait of madame de pompadour with isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film (left), François Boucher (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As illustrated above, de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t always exact reproductions of the originals, and they’re not meant to be; instead, she aims to capture the spirit of each style, giving herself the freedom to alter patterns or add embellishments wherever she sees fit.

Having said that, it’s nearly impossible to wander the exhibition without being awestruck by how closely she’s managed to replicate some of the outfits. This is especially true of the “Splendor of the Medici” series, which celebrates the lavish finery worn throughout the Renaissance by Florence’s (and later Tuscany’s) most famous ruling family.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Sometime between 1593 and 1595, Marie de’ Medici, daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici, posed for a portrait by Pietro Facchetti while wearing a gown with rich gold pattern down the front and a magnificent lace collar. If you didn’t know any better while looking at de Borchgrave’s rendering, you might think that very dress—right down to the “pearl” embellishments—had survived these last four centuries.

portrait of marie de medici next to isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
Ellen Gutoskey (left), Pietro Facchetti (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

And then there’s “Les Ballets Russes,” a whimsical, vibrant series that reimagines the unconventional costumes worn by the Ballets Russes, a ballet company established in 1909 that featured some of the most famous dancers and choreographers of all time, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and George Balanchine. Much like how de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t created by a career fashion designer, the costumes and sets of the Ballets Russes weren’t designed by actual costume and set designers. Instead, founder Serge Diaghilev commissioned artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to come up with them.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Working off photos and the artists’ sketches, de Borchgrave gives the bold, eclectic performance attire another life in the limelight. And here, in particular, you can see the manifestation of all her early days spent drawing human models. Though these mannequins are made only of wire, de Borchgrave has set the costumes on them in such a way that the figures actually seem like they’re dancing.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
Based on a costume by Léon Bakst for Vaslav Nijinsky in La Péri, 1912
Ellen Gutoskey

Even if you can’t picture yourself headed to your office wrapped in yards of tulle and taffeta, there are likely elements from de Borchgrave’s work that you do see in stores these days, from bright floral patterns to large, front-facing bows. After all, as de Borchgrave says herself, styles simply never stop coming back.

The SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, located on Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus, is exhibiting “Fashioning Art From Paper” from now through January 12, 2020, and you can purchase tickets for $10 each here.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER