If you were to make a list of all the most famous paintings, there’s a fair chance that the Nighthawks painting by Edward Hopper would be on the list. A cafe in the middle of a crossing, in the middle of the night with just four inhabitants, all together yet separated. And this brilliant structure and composition of the painting enable the viewers not just to see, but hear the painting as well.
Analyzing the painting is a difficult task. Analyzing Hopper’s masterpiece is even more difficult. This analysis, like all other analyses, is not an analysis of the painter’s intentions and thoughts while making the painting but what the viewer (me in this case) feels that the painting is trying to convey. More on this later. Let’s look at the painting.
The structure of the painting
One of the reasons why Hopper’s paintings stand out and catch our attention is because of the use of straight lines running parallel as well as intersecting each other. This adds a beautiful symmetry to the depiction of bland, minimalist buildings; the harsh architecture of a concrete jungle. While lines are one part of the equation, the second part is the use of color.
Hopper in most of his paintings that involved human subjects used eye-searing, garish color combination. Although the colors in this painting are subdued to show the shower of night, one can clearly see the use of fluorescent tinge in the greens and reds and yellows.
While the buildings are bland in their architecture, why does everything look so clean? It is the symmetry that adds beauty to it. Notice how the curb runs parallel to the edge of the cafe? Not just that, but the seats are all placed parallel to the outlines of the cafe. Not just that, even the serving table resembles the architecture of the cafe, matching the outlines of its structure.
Hopper found a unique beauty in the “hideous” buildings of the city. But there is another emotion hidden in most of his paintings that makes viewers stare at them. That emotion brilliantly comes out of this painting, but we see it regularly in Hopper’s other creations. It is loneliness. But this is a different type of loneliness.
The scene we see
The vantage point for the viewers is in the darkness, away from the place where the cafe’s light seeps in. It is the perspective that gives the painting an “unending” illusion. The road that goes towards the right blends in with the darkness. There is no light coming from the front or the back of the road the viewers are standing on. This gives us a sense of vastness and the darkness with it. We stand there, near the cafe with a warm fluorescent light.
The temporal location of the painting can be estimated to be late-night, somewhere past midnight. There is darkness everywhere except for the cafe. All the other buildings that can be seen from the vantage point are closed. The geographical location is something that cannot be determined. Hopper made this cafe by referencing different cafes. The advertisement of Phillies cigar is real as the brand does exist.
While we cannot say where this cafe is, we can see an easter egg. Look at the red and green buildings on the other side of the road. That building is very similar to the building in the painting Early Sunday Morning painted in 1930. Perhaps this is where the cafe is as well? Who knows, but it is an interesting reference that people often miss.
The cafe in the painting
If you divide the painting in the vertical plane, you get two halves; one with light, the other with darkness. The part with darkness is devoid of light and light while the other part has both. There are four people inside the cafe. The colors used for the inside are bright yellow and whitish blue, all with the familiar fluorescent tinge.
The attention to detail for the interior is commendable. The cups, salt shakers, coffee canister with a glass-covered slit to check the level of nightfuel, the cigarette in the hand of the Nighthawk all invites the viewers to take a closer look, driving their attention to the inside.
This detail was necessary. The size of the canvas of this painting is huge, 33 x 60-inches, or 5 x 2.7-feets. Hopper worked slowly, with less of painting the scene and more of seeing the painting emerge, the ideas fleeting by his mind, slowly docking in. The large size of the painting adds to the engulfing nature of the painting.
The people in Nighthawks
There are four people in Nighthawks, or we can say that there are four nighthawks in the painting. First, there’s the barista clad in white and very excited to serve the patrons. A couple is sitting on one side of the table. From the notes of Josephine Hopper (Edward’s wife), we know that the man is modeled after Hopper himself and the woman in red is Josephine.
While they are couples, there is a lack of warmth between them. They sit close, yet they are isolated, far from each other, like The Lonely Ones by Edvard Munch. Their faces show a stoic expression and their bodies have a restricted, formal posture. While the colors are warm, the emotions are far from it.
This exhibition of emotion is what’s so common in Hopper’s other major work. The sense of loneliness in the presence of people. This is what gives his paintings the quietness, literally and metaphorically.
The loneliness and silence of Nighthawks
The emotional distance in the living subjects of Nighthawks and other paintings by Hopper gives the feeling of isolation, of seclusion. Perhaps it was to show the busy life of a city where you are surrounded by people, yet there is no connection between them and you.
In Nighthawks, no one seems to be interested in communicating with anyone. While the barista seems to be asking or looking at the man with the cigarette, the man does not bother to look at him. There’s not even a visual connection. People are not even looking at other people. This enhances the isolating sensation one gets by looking at the painting.
The barista is working alone in this large cafe. He is alone. The two people sitting together are together perhaps, yet there is no connection between them. Both are lost in their own world, unaware of each others’ presence. Then there’s this mysterious man who’s back is turned towards the viewers. We can’t see his face, but we don’t need to know what he’s feeling.
He sits alone, with a glass in his hand while the coffee waits for him to come out of his thoughts. He isn’t looking at anyone either. Just basking in the silence, thinking about things we’ll never know, an expression we’ll never see, but we know he is not very keen to know the people around him.
I mentioned earlier that you can hear the painting. Take a look and try to stand where the viewer is standing. Or perhaps go inside the cafe, get a stool, and sit down with the people. What can you hear? Perhaps the sound of porcelain being kept on wooden cabinets or the burning of the cigarette, or the man sipping his drink. One sound you’ll definitely listen to is the silence. Not a single word is being spoken, the streets are empty and the world is asleep.
To me, this scene gives me a soothing pleasure, a sense of isolation from the world, a quiet moment to think. And this is not just for Nighthawks. Some of his most famous works are very similar to this painting, both visually and emotionally.
Here’s a short list of paintings by Edward Hopper that shows either one living subject or two or more people together yet they are isolated. The same sense of seclusion that is present in Nighthawks is present in these paintings.
- Girl at a Sewing Machine
- House Tops (metal etching)
- Apartment Houses
- Two on the Aisle
- Night Windows
- Chop Suey
- The Barber Shop
- Room in Brooklyn
- Hotel Room
- Compartment Car
- New York Movie
- Room in New York
- Morning in a City
- Summer in a city
- Office in a small city
The use of bright lines, minimalist backgrounds, a contrast of light and dark is what gives these paintings the atmosphere. The theme of isolation is not just present in painting with people, but landscape paintings as well.
A world within a world
Take a look at Hopper’s landscape painting where the subject is a house or a building and you’ll realize something. Hopper tried to show the world that we create inside the world. The houses and offices we make are our artificial work. We live there, work there and spend most of our time there. The only time we leave this “world” to be in the other world is when we commute. This is why he focuses a lot on the windows of these buildings.
The windows are the way of looking at the outer world. Hopper had a taste for realism. He painted on large canvases and he knew how to make something look real. But then why did he ignore the glasses? He could have given a more realistic look to them, but it almost feels like there is no glass in these buildings. This is to blend in the distinction between the two worlds. To create a balance between the dichotomized elements of the painting.
Influence of shipbuilding
Hopper was born in a shipbuilding community and had a passion for ships and boats. He wanted to be a nautical architect. The influence of ships and boats can be seen in his paintings, both directly and indirectly. Hopper made many paintings of boats and ships. Paintings such as The Cat Boat, Sailing, Tramp Steamer, The Long Leg, etc are such examples.
But what about indirect influence? Nighthawks is one such example. Take a look at the painting, at the cafe with the four living subjects. The perspective and the shape of the cafe resembles the bow of a ship or a boat. It is as if the cafe is moving towards the sea of the city with its lights illuminating the dark roads. The lack of detail in the curb gives it a water-like texture (while there’s plenty of details inside the cafe).
Another example of such perspective/angle is Room in Brooklyn which is a view from a window in the corner, the familiar triangular projection towards the large city. August in the City is another example of a similar perspective and structure but here the projected portion of the building is curved instead of being a pointed triangle. Office in a Small City again goes back to the same triangular projection of the building, like a ship headed towards the vastness of the open world.
Perhaps subconsciously, perhaps intentionally but his love for making ships, the elegance of it seeped into the art of painting cityscapes. Another common thing we see in his paintings (including Nighthawks) is windows and light.
The use of warm, fluorescent lights
Hopper’s most famous paintings have this sense of loneliness. But why do they look so good? Why do they invite the viewers to feel how the subject feels? A part of it is because of the use of warm, fluorescent colors. Hopper did not like dull, dark, cloudy, and rainy environments. Hence using these garish colors, he created a sense of dryness, physical dryness. The days are bright and well lit with a flooding natural light while the night is filled with warm artificial light, creeping out of the windows and lighting the surrounding.
I think all of Hooper’s qualities are shown in the Nighthawks painting. A sense of loneliness, an environment of silence, large windows blending the distinction between two opposite worlds. But this is what I think when I look at the painting, not what Hopper may have felt. This brings us to the last section of this article.
What analyzing a painting means
If analyzing a painting is thought to be analyzing the mindset and thoughts of the painter while he/she made the painting, it is very wrong. Analyzing a painting means that the analyzer (viewer) is trying to find what is that he/she is feeling.
In an interview, Hopper was asked what he thought of all the art critics trying to understand the meaning of the painting. To all that he said. “I think they’re all wrong”. You cannot get the thoughts of the painter because even the painter can’t.
Painters take a long time to paint a single piece. Do you think you have the same thoughts for days if not months? No, things change and so does painter’s influences, thoughts, etc. That is not the aim of this article or of any article on this website. What we try to find is what the painting we are seeing evokes inside us. This concludes the article.
Read more painting analysis
- The Great Wave off Kanagawa analysis: Why it is so famous? Because it stops time
- The Lonely Ones by Edvard Munch: How can someone be with someone and lonely?
- Some of Salvador Dali’s paintings that you won’t believe were made by him