This week, KAZoART takes you into the nitty gritty of what is likely Edward Hopper’s best known work. Nighthawks is full of little mysteries waiting to be unraveled. We’re in downtown Manhattan on the corner of Greenwich Avenue, the year is 1942…

Nocturnal Wanderers

Though Nighthawks represents some of Hopper’s best work and is one of the most recognizable paintings of the 20th Century, he did not gain immediate renown for his art. Born in 1882 in New York, Hopper struggled to make a name for himself at the beginning of his career. He only began to perfect his technique after many trips to Europe. Particularly fond of Paris, Hopper enjoyed the artistic culture it nurtured in the late 19th Century. It wasn’t until 1933 that his work was exhibited for the first time. However, he really couldn’t have gotten any luckier with the venue, which was none other than the MoMA in New York.

How exactly do we explain the success of this painting? Hopper takes us back to the 30’s and 40’s, the golden age of Hollywood. The half-lit night scene presents a warm yet tense atmosphere that seems almost dangerous. Phillies, a typical American diner is open late and four characters with frozen postures can be found inside. Night has fallen and time has stopped.

Hopper is said to have drawn inspiration for this painting from The Killers (1927), a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The narrative is simple: two hit-men wait for their victim, an ex-boxer, in a brewery. A second possible source of inspiration is Van Gogh’s Café de Nuit which captures the nocturnal atmosphere of late-night establishments. We can find the same red and green tones contrasted by a yellowish light in Nighthawks. Now that the scene is set, let’s delve a bit deeper into this dark night in The Village.

4 Details you don’t want to miss

1. Secret lovers?

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Of the four characters, two are distinguished by their close proximity. The woman and man pictured above seem to have something in common. Adorned in a red dress, this young woman is none other than Jo Hopper, the artist’s real-life companion. She jealously insisted on being the sole female model for all of Hopper’s art. Her red hair blends in perfectly with the bar’s warm tones. With lowered eyes, she holds something in her hand but critics can’t agree what exactly it is. A sandwich? A pack of cigarettes? Or maybe a roll of bills? If it is money she has, is it safe to assume that they’re only together for one night? The contact between their hands is nonetheless intentional and important.

The man’s physical features are not unlike the title of the work. Hopper has rendered him in the likeness of a bird with a long nose and curved back. We know that in reality, Josephine and Edward had a tumultuous relationship full of spite and violence. So the man with the hat and cigarette could indeed be Hopper’s self-portrait, taking equal part in the blame for their poisonous marriage.

2. A mysterious man

nighthawks-hopper-homme-de-dos

Undoubtedly the most troubling character in the painting, the man with his back to us makes his real intentions impossible to know. Taking on a contemplative pose, he holds a glass in his hand and ponders. But what is he waiting for? Facing the couple, he is both a spectator and a subject.

3. The imposing percolators

nighthawks-hopper-percolateurs

Hopper plays with symmetry by inserting two percolators behind the bartender. These two cylindrical devices mirror the couple. Their lifeless and machine-like features bring into mind the redhead woman and the man at her side. Not minimising their importance, Hopper allows them their own space in the painting.

4. The discreet till

nighthawks-hopper-caisse

If the atmosphere seems heavy, it’s probably because the setting appears to be quasi-uninhabited. Minimalist lines soften and polish the street, making everything appear to be in order. But did you notice the object lurking in the shadows? Adjacent to the café, we see a single till sitting in the window. Hopper is probably alluding to the state of the American economy at the time, though we can’t be for certain.

Hopper’s Dark and Complex Stage

We cannot help but wonder if this scene ever existed outside of Hopper’s mind. It does seem theatrical and illusory. Two dark bands frame the diner and draw the viewer’s eyes inward, scanning for more clues. Hopper allows us to witness the intimacy of the bar while also experiencing the silence of the empty street. We are inside and outside. And yet, these characters seem so far from us. Neither attainable nor understandable, they are forever locked inside the fishbowl of a diner that Hopper has placed them in. Static, there is no suggestion of entry or exit. Even the bartender is surrounded by his triangular counter. A profound paradox that lets us see but never approach.

An obvious pictorial feat, Hopper manages to gradually blur the wall, giving the illusion that there is no more glass to the right. Even the most minuscule of details such as the salt and pepper shakers, cups and objects on the bar are painted with a mastered skill. From this scene, a myth has been born. Many have traveled far to discover where exactly this painting was conceived. Alas, it seems that the diner has either been destroyed or never existed to begin with. This part of the mystery remains intact.

Hopper-inspired work on KAZoART • Patrick Brière

The artist, Patrick Brière also depicted a scene in a café. However, his atmosphere differs greatly from that of Hopper’s. Where the latter is almost oppressive, plunging us into an eternal night, Brière reveals a couple exchanging a few words over coffee, illuminated by the morning sun.

Un matin en terrasse
Patrick Brière, Un matin en terrasse (oil painitng)