Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Edward Hoppers "Nighthawks" (1942)

A famous painting commonly seen today.

When first looking on the painting by Hopper, it seems very calm. Though as we take a much closer and prolonged look at the painting we begin to feel other emotions as well. One of the first things someone might notice is the light being emitted from within “Phillies”. The only light source within the painting is what’s coming from inside the cafe/diner and it casts shadows on the streets outside. Here is another thing the viewer might notice, the lack of any trees or vegetation or life other than the four people inside Phillies. One man working behind the counter and three patrons, two of which are male. One female and three men. Now we can pay a little more attention to the people.

There is one man sitting by himself in a blue suit and a gray fedora.

Man sitting by himself.

Since he is sitting by himself and quite a distance away from the other two patrons, we can assume they’re not part of the same group. This man is also sitting with his back to the viewer and is the only face we don’t see, so we can’t exactly tell what his mood might possibly be so we’re left with the fact that he’s sitting by himself and looking downward at a cup of coffee or something. He could very well be the man from Hemmingway’s short story that tried killing himself.

Next are the man and the woman.

Man and Woman

The man in the suit and the woman in red.

At first glance we might assume that these two are a couple of some sort, but by picking up from subtle hints we can also assume that they’re in some sort of affair. Why an affair you ask? Well for one we can see both of the woman’s hands and neither have a ring, as far as we can tell. If she were married, there’d be some sign of a ring on her left hand, which there isn’t. As for the man, his left hand is hidden, probably for good reason (cheating and all). Perhaps they’re genuinely a couple, however. But we also see the woman is wearing red (typical archetype for a woman of that caliber) and if we reach into older literary beliefs we can judge her by the people around her and her hair. If we follow Swift’s beliefs, red hair can be associated with being “highly sexed”.  There’s also the fact that she’s the only woman in the scene, surrounded by three other men. A harlot if I ever saw one! A ghoulish looking one, too.

In a totally random tangent we can also assume that they’re possibly secret agents trading information. What is the man hiding in his left hand? What’s that green stick the woman is holding?

Now we come to the man working behind the counter.

Phillies Employee

The man behind the counter.

At least on the two other men depicted in the painting we see their right hands only, as for this man we can see neither of his hands (perhaps he’s taking a rifle out to shoot the ghoulish looking woman). This can easily be dismissed as more of his preparing of a drink or something of the sort than anything the artist was trying to convey about his character. We can also determine that the man behind the counter is having a conversation with the man in the black suit (sitting with the woman) so maybe they’re talking about the lonely patron as the two waiters were speaking of the old, drunk man in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

Now if we take the painting as a whole, while keeping Hemingway’s short story in mind (even if one simply knows the title of the tale), we can see that the scene is indeed clean, especially the counter/bar area and that Phillies is well-lighted. It is a night scene, so we can even make a correlation between the first paragraph of narrative and the painting: “In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust…” There is an eerie sort of clarity in every aspect of the painting. With a high enough resolution image (like the one posted above) we can zoom in on the title of the bar/cafe/place. Scanning from left to right we notice a cigars that are only 5 cents, Phillies, and part of a word which we can safely assume says America’s, and connecting it with the words below/next to it: America’s No 1 Cafe.” Other than that and the artist’s signature in the lower right corner of the painting, there is no other text and indeed every surface of the painting is extremely bare and plain.

The viewer is left with several questions: What sort of store is it in the background? What’s that fuzzy yellow-orange shape in the window on the second floor of the building? Why is the man turned away from us? Why is that woman so hideous looking?

After those rambling moments of analysis, what does this all mean? Why only have extremely urban and modern elements in the painting? Perhaps what the artist is trying to convey is the disconnect between people in this new age. The man sitting by himself, not interacting with the other three. The man having a conversation with the man behind the counter might be interacting, but might only be ordering something. Nevertheless they are still seperated by a counter and their difference in clothing. One obviously a worker, the other one, dare I say, blue collar (literally, he’s wearing a blue collared shirt…take a look). The female seems the most disconnected staring at something in her hands, possibly green, not paying mind to anything around herself.

Despite the painting being from the 40’s, there are still elements to be seen today, especially in the form of parodies:

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20 Responses to “Nighthawks by Edward Hopper”

  1.   Dy
    March 6th, 2011 | 10:24 pm

    The board on top is an advert for Phillies cigars. The far right would say “America’s No1 cigar”. Hemingway was a cigar aficionado.

  2.   Kenny
    September 30th, 2011 | 2:46 am

    I think the man sitting next to the women asked for an ashtray, since he has a cigarette in his hand, and that is what the man in white is going for. The woman is holding something that is more the shape of a square, since I was able to zoom in quite a bit. More like a pack of matches, or perhaps she is eating something with her coffee, or it could even be a sugar packet or something. But you can tell it is white actually with a green edge, whatever it is.

  3. February 22nd, 2012 | 5:00 am

    It’s a real pleasure to get a focus on this fabulous painting and to go through this clever analysis.
    Thanks!

  4.   ccllyyddee
    May 29th, 2012 | 6:14 am

    What a sucky analysis. For 10th grade art class. If you are going to invent a script for this scenario try using some imagination.

  5.   Bill Fell
    December 12th, 2012 | 5:05 pm

    I have heard of this painting via Harlan Cobin in in Just One Look. I have seen it refered to in other novels so I looked it up.Having been born in 42 and exposed to simpler times I would interperate the painting as being a scene of lonliness in a time of uncertanty. 1040 was war for America, not a happy time. the charachters all seem detatched, even the couple are just barely connecting. To me it represents lonliness in a bleak scenario.

  6.   Chris
    July 3rd, 2013 | 1:19 am
  7.   Chris
    July 3rd, 2013 | 1:20 am
  8.   Kimberley
    September 6th, 2013 | 4:12 pm

    What’s up, its nice piece of writing concerning media print, we all understand media is a fantastic source
    of information.

  9. September 10th, 2013 | 12:10 pm

    Nice analysis! I think Hopper purposely intended the woman in red to be seen as a “harlot” type as you say, but maybe more of a femme fatale? A film noir analysis of Nighthawks is very easy to do. The femme fatale would fit well with that theme.

  10.   ken sheller
    October 8th, 2013 | 7:33 pm

    wish barber pole didn’t lean to the left.

  11.   ken sheller
    October 8th, 2013 | 7:40 pm

    oops . wrong painting

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