Growing up, there was a print of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks above our family’s computer desk at home. I remember working on papers in high school and glancing up at the print, imagining what the figures would think of my poetry analysis or chemistry report. The figures seemed so lonely, isolated in the brightly lit diner. The colors and structure of the piece emitted an atmosphere almost of tired tension. I was – and am – often reminded of the movies from the 1940s and film noir period. I could imagine Humphrey Bogart or Barbara Stanwyck stepping into the scene, exhausted after a long day and in need of a strong, hot cup of coffee.
During this time I made it a point to hop a train and visit the Art Institute of Chicago and actually view Hopper’s Nighthawks in the flesh.
Located in the American Art Gallery, this 1942 oil on canvas immediately captures a sense mystery – Who were these individuals? What were their stories? The Art Institute points out that because the piece has a visible lack of narrative, it also has a timeless quality that transcends its particular local – inviting the imagination to concoct its own tale for the figures in the diner.
With just Nighthawks in mind, I was curious – who was Edward Hopper as an artist? What was his life like? In a 2004 biography written by Sheena Wagstaff, the director of exhibitions at the Tate Modern, London, Wagstaff notes that as a quiet and introverted man, Hopper had a gentle sense of humor and a frank manner. Born in New York in 1882, Hopper studied at the New York Institute of Art and Design, and was greatly influenced by Rembrandt, Impressionists, and engravers such as Charles Meyron. His work shifted between urban and rural settings, utilizing a spare and careful style. Hopper focused his work in mediums such as oil, watercolor, and prints. Nighthawks is his best known work, for additional pieces check out this convenient list. Hopper died 1967, and his wife, who had been a strong partner in his career, passed away ten months later. Much of his life’s work was left to the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2007 the National Gallery of Art hosted an exhibit, Edward Hopper, which surveyed the artist’s work.
Hopper’s art has inspired countless other works in a variety of mediums from comics to motion pictures. Nighthawks specifically has inspired its fair share of parodies. Check out this 2009 article which highlights several pop culture interpretations of the piece.