Bought by the Art Institute of Chicago for $3,000 as soon as it was completed in 1942, ‘Nighthawks’ led the way toward Abstract Expressionism along with Edward Hopper’s other works.
The painting depicted a diner on a street corner as the only light source in a deserted and dark environment. Through a particular perspective, Hopper placed the viewer outside the establishment, looking in through a window without any visible entrance, hinting at a degree of detachment.
The artist created several sketches before creating the scene of four figures in a diner, focusing on human figures, lighting, and perspective. For the final painting, he used himself as a reference for the male figures and his wife, Josephine, for the female figure, as revealed in a letter from her to Hopper’s sister, Marion.
One of the male figures sat alone with his back to the viewer, while the artist placed a man and a woman side by side with apparent space between them. Given that this painting was produced during World War II, some interpreted the scene as a reflection of the alienation and loneliness that came with it.
But Hopper revealed that he didn’t have the effects of war in his mind while making the painting, though he added that ‘unconsciously, he was painting the loneliness of a large city.’ He reportedly once explained:
“So much of every art is an expression of the subconscious that it seems to me most of all the important qualities are put there unconsciously, and little of importance by the conscious intellect.”
The painting’s setting raised questions through the years, as Hopper said it ‘was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet’ in a ‘simplified scene.’ People tried to identify the exact place in New York, but research showed that the diner in question was never real in the first place.
With that, some critics drew connections between ‘Nighthawks’ and Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’ which depicted two waiters and an old man in a well-illuminated diner like the one in the painting.
‘Nighthawks’ is still in the Art Institute of Chicago collection.