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.
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.