This 1942 painting, titled Nighthawks, is one of Edward Hopper's most famous works of art. With its precise design, evocative color, and indelible imagery, the work is nothing short of a masterpiece and remains to this day one of the iconic creations of American art.
From a sidewalk view, we are looking at an empty street corner and a late-night diner with big, wide windows. All of the other buildings on the block are closed; the only light and warmth of color in the painting come from the restaurant. We can see inside, but Hopper has included no visible door or entranceway into the place, as if to suggest a separation, an unbridgeable gap between us, the viewer, or the artist himself, and the populace. But we look into this cozy area, as our eye naturally follows the light, and see several figures: a lone man seated with his back to us, a couple leaning up against the counter on the opposite side of the bar, and a waiter. We see these figures from far away, already suggesting a tone of secluded estrangement; and what with the deserted streets and vacant buildings of our surroundings, we approach the scene in the diner already imbued with feelings of solitary remoteness. But when we enter (at least visually) into the restaurant, we find a scene equally communicative of these consistent themes of loneliness, isolation, and monotony.
The waiter bends low behind the counter, perhaps preparing an order for the couple just in front of him. We see a profile of him farthest indoors (or, closest to the middle of the bar). Past him on the far right are two coffee machines, defining him as a server, a utility, almost, blending in with the pale interior walls of the restaurant; and farther off to the right is a door, probably leading to the kitchen (but we do not know). Along the countertop we can see napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers—this attention to detail infuses Hopper's image with even richer clarity and precision, as if to suggest that this is no mere invention of artistic imagination. This scene reflects a reality of American society, right down to the salt and pepper shakers. Of course, this picture of society is not typical to the work of a flâneur, as we saw during the Impressionistic Period; for this scene takes place late into the night hours, when the crowds have gone and only a few remain behind. One of these "stragglers," then, is the waiter, who we can assume is there because it's his shift; and he is meanwhile busy in his own world, working away until it comes time for him to go home.
Then, on the far side of the bar counter is a couple who are almost holding hands (the man holds a cigarette, and the woman's hand simply rests on its own). The woman wears the most vivid colors of the whole painting. Her red dress and stunning orange hair cause her to stand out in the scene; and yet, like the brightly-dressed waiter to the right, a part of this coloration blends in with the well-lit background of the diner. Situated against the backdrop of the dark window, she would stand out even more; but Hopper has placed her nearer the interior lighting of the restaurant in a way that diminishes the richness of her otherwise vibrant colors. In fact, she herself appears removed from the scene, as she stares blankly at a small packet of sugar or a dollar bill. Her face bears no expression, and one could almost say that she's bored just sitting there. Clearly, the coloration of her character doesn't match up with that of her outer appearance. And the man leaning over the countertop next to her appears to carry a similar, blank expression on his face as he stares off into space. He is clothed in darker colors, and his suit blends in more with the night behind him. They are maybe the last customers of the night and only casually walk into the diner, not totally present within the scene or else very bored or melancholy. The idea is that, once they are finished with their drinks, they will leave the same way they came in: not talking to each other or anyone else. They are merely unknown souls passing in the night, distant and detached like the figure of the woman at the Automat in Hopper's earlier painting.
And then we come to the man sitting alone. He is nearest to the center of the painting but almost blends into the background, given his dark clothes and shadowed head. Barely any of his skin is shown to contrast the darkness around him except a slight picture of the side of his cheek. We can just notice over his arm that he is holding a glass. He is sitting with his back to us, and we see hardly any features of his face or even hands; we know nothing about him. None of the other people in the diner seem to take notice of him, and the fact that we cannot see his face further separates him from us, too. This man is completely alone and unknown, just some mysterious shape among the rest of the painting's cast of characters. It's an impression of city life, but it also bears allusion to the pervading literary and artistic mindset of the time. Representative of the late Modern sentiments of disillusionment and seclusion, this man evokes both the feeling and philosophy of urban isolation. A post-Depression painting, Hopper's Nighthawks speaks subtly of the human toll of the time period alongside the Western world's entrance into Postmodernism. The profound sense of loss and devastation that characterized the literary Modern Age after World War I is present here, and paintings like this echo the common attitude of the generation, expressed in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby:
I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.
Actually, many art scholars have linked the painting's subject matter to a short story by Ernest Hemingway, from which the artist may have gleaned inspiration. Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" tells of two restaurant waiters hanging about their diner very late one night, waiting for a single bar patron, an older man, to finish his drink and leave. While waiting for the man to pay and exit the store, the two waiters swap rumors about the man's possible history, while one waiter grows increasingly impatient to return home to his wife. Like the man in Hemingway's story, this figure in Nighthawks sits eternally still, late into the night, and remains to the end a mystery.
And, considering Hopper's layout of this work, the man, this anonymous loner, is placed farthest to the left, away from the center of the building. In his seat, he hangs near the edge of the restaurant and closer to the outside world, further associating him with darkness, mystery, and the unfamiliar void. Sitting idly in a diner late at night, all alone and with his back turned to the world, his image is of the iconic noir type, of the lone wolf—or, in this case, hawk.
Late Modern and early Postmodern poets found a recurring symbol in the hawk as an animal representative of several themes to their generation. A kind of extended metaphor, hawks in early Postmodern literature came to symbolize many different ideas, from God, death, and the Unknown to expressions of the heart of the post-WWII generation and humanity in general. You might check out Robert Penn Warren's "Evening Hawk," Ted Hughes' "Hawk Roosting," and Robinson Jeffers' "Hurt Hawks" to gain a quick understanding of the significance of hawks in poetry at this time. I won't wax away too eloquent on this point, since it took to popularity primarily as a literary device of the 1950s and '60s; but here Edward Hopper selects Nighthawks as his painting's title, possibly to reference several of these symbolic meanings. However, the most instantly communicable feature of the change from "night owls" to "Nighthawks" is the latter's more direct connotation to predatory imagery (since owls are more frequently characterized as possessive of wisdom). The world of this painting is to be seen, under its chosen title, as a world of amoral wildness and heartless violence, while simultaneously one of tranquil soaring and graceful agility. There is definitely an underlying beauty to an artwork such as this, though it depicts the empty loneliness of modern life.
Again, a darker reading of the work sees the title in direct reference to one of the figures in the scene. "Nighthawks" could refer to a nocturnal hunter, an animal purposefully hanging about around a certain location to pick out a weaker creature to prey on. This interpretation of the painting sees the man sitting alone as a predator. The shadowy anonymity of his hidden face and the broad darkness of his back turned to the viewer become suggestive of an image less of pathos and more of fear. There can be greater intimidation in his aloneness at the corner of the diner, like a solemn, vulturine scavenger, waiting to fall on a lone and unsuspecting late-night visitor. And if we look closely at the side of the man's face, we notice that he appears to be staring at least within the vicinity of the couple—perhaps he is eyeing the woman; after all, her red dress, lipstick, and vivid, orange hair made her immediately visible to us. Like the painting of the Automat, this woman could be read as a sexual object, innocently and absent-mindedly staring at whatever she holds in her hand while not realizing she's being looked at. After all, why is this man staying here alone so late at night? Is he a "hawk"?
It's interesting; depending on your own views, this lone figure on the left may be a symbol of loneliness and abandonment, or he may be seen as a night stalker or prowler. In one instance, he merely exists in a world of pain and woe, while in the other, his presence in the world is the cause of its frightening dangerousness. Either way, Hopper captures a pretty bleak snapshot of the world in his painting; and yet, how calm a scene! We can almost feel the silence as we gaze through the glass of this secluded restaurant. This could be a scene of philosophical and emotional devastation and grief; or it could be a stage picture of a terrifying night of criminal activity (perhaps alluding to another relevant short story by Hemingway, "The Killers," also set in a restaurant)—but in either case, the napkin dispensers remain laid out neatly along the countertop, the salt and pepper shakers remain in their place, and the waiter continues to work away into the late hours of the night. And the artist shows the outside environment of empty shops and buildings and the deserted street corner as if to comment on the ignorance and indifference of the world to witness it all. For good or ill, this paradoxical restaurant with no doors appears destined to carry on as it is well into the night, offering light and warmth but little real protection or safety from the heartlessness and predatory cruelty of the outside world.