Nighthawks portrays people sitting in a downtown diner late at night. It is Hopper's most famous work and is one of the most recognizable paintings in American art. Within months of its completion, it was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago for $3,000 and has remained there ever since.
Josephine Hopper's notes on the painting starting shortly after their marriage in 1924, Edward Hopper and his wife, Josephine (Jo), kept a journal in which he would, using a pencil, make a sketch-drawing of each of his paintings, along with a precise description of certain technical details. Jo Hopper would then add additional information in which the themes of the painting are, to some degree, illuminated.
A review of the page on which "Nighthawks" is entered shows (in Edward Hopper’s handwriting) that the intended name of the work was actually "Night Hawks", and that the painting was completed on January 21, 1942.
Jo’s handwritten notes about the painting give considerably more detail, including the interesting possibility that the painting's evocative title may have had its origins as a reference to the beak-shaped nose of the man at the bar:
“Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles ¾ across canvas—at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre door into kitchen right.
Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back—at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark—Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street—at edge of stretch of top of window.”
Hopper chose to paint a scene located at a sharply-angled street-corner, rather than at one of New York’s many right-angled intersections. This choice was not unusual for Hopper, who painted a number of other scenes of this kind of corner. A sharp corner gave him the opportunity to display his subjects from a nearly frontal point of view, and also allowed him to display the dimly visible street scene behind the patrons. Hopper often painted scenes in which a part of the exterior view could be seen through two panes of glass. The shape of the diner in Nighthawks, when seen from Hopper’s chosen angle (which is also the point of view of a passer-by walking past on the sidewalk), allows this second glass surface to fill the entire centre of the painting. The further pane of glass forms a rhomboid, close to the center of the painting and recalling, with slight distortion, the shape of the entire canvas, and framing much of the action.
The back window serves as a background for all three customers, but not for the server. Its variance from the shape of the painting as a whole also hides a curious symmetry that would otherwise be obvious: The head of the customer who is sitting alone is at the precise center of the frame-within-a-frame (which is also the exact center of the painting as a whole). Although they sit around a bend in the counter, the heads of the couple are directly to his right, so that a horizontal line, drawn precisely halfway between the top and the bottom of the canvas, would bisect all three heads. The entire human element in the painting is therefore contained within the lower right-hand quarter of the canvas.
As Jo Hopper's journal entry notes, the brightest spot in the painting is the “bit of bright ceiling” close to the hidden fluorescent light that illuminates the interior. The ceiling is obviously of limited relevance to any narrative that might be unfolding among the customers below; this is Hopper’s realism at work.
Outside the diner, dull colors predominate, as might be expected at night. Inside, the counter-top and the men’s suits are also dull. The two brightly-colored spots in the entire interior are the white outfit worn by the server and the female customer’s red blouse. Indeed, her red blouse and lipstick represent the only use of red in the entire composition, causing her to stand apart from everything else in the painting. Hopper left no written record to indicate whether the elimination of all other red is intended.
When I saw this, I thought of the 50's & 60's. I had some buttons that were the red I wanted to use, and they reminded me of the pill box hats that were the fashion in that era thanks to Jackie Kennedy. My necklace is made up of the red buttons I had in mind. The cream and brown pieces I created from two buttons wired together. They remind me of the coffee and cream that most people drank late at night at the diners. I filled in between the buttons with green beads and a clear glass bead with green lines in it. That reminded me of the windows. I used wire that I curled at each end with jump rings to connect them. The connection for the back was a silver chain with a hook closure. I enjoyed this challenge and am looking forward to July's.