Famous Paintings: Nighthawks

Edward Hopper.  Self-Portrait, 1925-30.  Oil on canvas, 25 1/4" by 20 5/8".  Whitney Museum of American Art.  Josephine N. Hopper Bequest.

Edward Hopper.  Self-Portrait, 1925-30.  Oil on canvas, 25 1/4″ by 20 5/8″.  Whitney Museum of American Art.  Josephine N. Hopper Bequest.

Nighthawks, one of Edward Hopper’s most famous paintings, has become one of the most recognized images in 20th century American art, and may be the most widely recognized of all Edward Hopper paintings.

But first some history about Edward Hopper (1882-1967) himself.

Brought up in a town on the Hudson River, Hopper attended the New York Institute of Art and Design (where he tooks classes from William Merrit Chase, whose teaching he subsequently referred to quite critically), and toured Europe in 1906, 1909 and 1910 to study European paintings firsthand.

Hopper continued painting while supporting himself as an illustrator in New York.  In 1920 he showed 16 paintings in his first solo exhibition but failed to receive either sales or critical acclaim, and pondered quitting oil painting.

The first painting Hopper sold was Sailing at the Amory Show of 1913; he wasn’t to sell another for a decade but persisted with his painting. In 1925, his House by the Railroad became the first painting by any painter to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art; this sale initiated a period of high productivity and success. Just eight years later, MoMA organized the first retrospective of Edward Hopper paintings.

Edward Hopper.  House by the Railroad.  Oil on canvas, 24" by 29".  Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Edward Hopper.  House by the Railroad.  Oil on canvas, 24″ by 29″.  Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Though Hopper disliked working as a magazine illustrator, that employment undeniably honed skills which are apparent in Edward Hopper paintings – his sparse, realist style eliminates extraneous detail while presenting people and events in the moment.

Hopper’s work exemplifies “Realism”, which, along with “Precisionism” and “Regionalism”, were facets of American artists’ efforts at the turn of the 20th century to differentiate themselves from European Modernism. This trend was kicked off by painters of the Ashcan School such as Robert Henri (1865-1929), one of Hopper’s teachers.

The Nighthawks painting was inspired, Hopper claimed, by a “restaurant on New York’s Greenwich
Avenue where two streets meet.”  Although he painted composite images rather than specifically identifiable ones, the profound detachment, loneliness and isolation of the street in Nighthawks is hard to imagine in New York City. Hopper steadfastly maintained that his paintings didn’t symbolize detachment or urban isolation, but it’s hard to find another meaning.

 Edward Hopper.  Nighthawks, 1942.  Oil on canvas, 33 1/8" by 60".   Art Institute of Chicago.

Edward Hopper.  Nighthawks, 1942.  Oil on canvas, 33 1/8″ by 60″.   Art Institute of Chicago.

The intense, shadow-casting light Hopper favored draws the viewer into the drama of Nighthawks.  The massive expanse of the restaurant’s plate glass window isn’t interrupted by a door, trapping the four occupants inside while rendering the viewer a voyeur

The diners in Nighthawks are separate from the outside world. As is true in many Edward Hopper paintings, there is no communication between the figures – while they are not physically isolated, they are emotionally isolated. The man and woman are united by the dark expanse surrounding them, but it’s not clear if they know each other – while her hand nearly brushes his, she is preoccupied and incommunicative.

Hopper’s sparing use of details draws the eye to where he opts to use them, like in the salt and pepper shakers, the bit of sandwich the woman holds, and the cup; this economy of detail comes from his training as an illustrator.

More isolation is present in the barren storefront on the left, where the only identifiable object is a solitary cash register; the man in the grey suit is nearly consumed by shadow as he sits alone.

There are countless questions left unanswered.

Nighthawks typifies Edward Hopper paintings in the second half of his career, portraying with harsh realism modern American life in trains, bars, theaters, gas stations, railroad stations and even in city dwellers’ homes.  Most of these works have the same “snapshot” quality as Nighthawks, compelling the viewer to compose a story at which Hopper only hints.

Hopper claimed repeatedly that works like Nighthawks didn’t contain symbols of alienation, emptiness and detachment, but by portraying a moment in time fraught with unanswered questions, Nighthawks coaxes the viewer to make an individual interpretation.

Is there any other interpretation of Nighthawks other than loneliness and indifference? Please share your thoughts.

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By |2018-03-23T22:49:15-05:00May 24th, 2013|American painters|5 Comments

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  1. Brian May 24, 2013 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    Hopper was one of the first to capture a kind of aloof and detached element in New Yorkers. It was somewhat evident in the Ashcan school too. Alex Katz comes to mind as another who depicts his figures not engaging with the viewer and often seemingly lost in their own thoughts. Perhaps this is some sort of NYC dweller self-protective indifference.

  2. Mark May 25, 2013 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    It’s tough not to see alienation and despair in this painting; however, I think the crux of the work focuses on the “sanctuary” provided to these hungry souls against the force of darkness within this cathedral of light. Is it a coincidence the tender is dressed nearly all in white, and with blond hair? Do not the coffee pots look like tabernacles? Does not the word “Phillies” whisper of love? Here one will find spiritual nourishment and protection against the void….
    It’s interesting to note that the Hollywood spoof of this features James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart, I think–lost souls, all?
    Finally, nearly all of Hopper’s works remind me of something out of a Hitchcock movie.

  3. srishti May 25, 2013 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    Maybe its just me but the place gives a sense of security,an escape from daily from the life whether it be domestic or work.A sense of refuge from the outside world- to drown troubles and mull over problems.

  4. Liza LaCasse May 26, 2013 at 3:07 pm - Reply

    I don’t see the alienation, loneliness and indifference that others see in this work. Just maybe the quiet of a late night in the city. Maybe individuals who are themselves experiencing solitude in the late hour. Yet, they are together in it in this scene. Perhaps alone, but not necessarily lonely. The greatest impression I get from this piece is a sense of intimacy. While each may be on their own, at this moment they share that quiet space and keep each other company in it.

  5. Susan Benford June 4, 2013 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    Such is the wonder of masterpieces — they’re open to individualized interpretation.


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