How Edward Hopper “Storyboarded” His Iconic Painting Nighthawks


Edward Hop­per’s Nighthawks (1942) does­n’t just evoke a cer­tain stripe of mid-cen­tu­ry, after-hours, big-city Amer­i­can lone­li­ness; it has more or less come to stand for the feel­ing itself. But as with most images that passed so ful­ly into the realm of icon­hood, we all too eas­i­ly for­get that the paint­ing did­n’t sim­ply emerge com­plete, ready to embed itself in the zeit­geist. Robin Cem­balest at ART­news has a post on how Edward Hop­per “sto­ry­board­ed” Nighthawks, find­ing and sketch­ing out mod­els for those three melan­cholic cus­tomers (one of whom you can see in an ear­ly ren­der­ing above), that whole­some young atten­dant in white, and the all-night din­er (which you can see come togeth­er in chalk on paper below) in which they find refuge.


These “19 stud­ies for Nighthawks,” writes Cem­balest, “reveal how Hop­per chore­o­graphed his voyeuris­tic scene of the night­time con­ver­gence of the man, a cou­ple, and a serv­er in the eerie Deco din­er, refin­ing every nuance of the coun­ter­top, the fig­ures, the archi­tec­ture, and the effects of the flu­o­res­cent light­ing.”

In each sketch, more pieces have fall­en into place: a din­er assumes their posi­tion, the light finds its angle, the per­spec­tive shifts to that of an out­sider on the dark­ened street. Cem­balest quotes Whit­ney cura­tor Carter Fos­ter describ­ing the final prod­uct as a “mar­velous demon­stra­tion of both extreme speci­fici­ty and near abstract com­po­si­tion­al sum­ma­tion on the same sur­face beguil­ing­ly [which] reflects how empir­i­cal obser­va­tion and imag­i­na­tion coex­ist­ed in Hopper’s head.”


Despite how many ele­ments of the real world Hop­per stud­ied to cre­ate Nighthawks, it ulti­mate­ly depicts no real place. The painter him­self posed for the male fig­ures, and his wife mod­eled for the female. As for the locale, seen in the final draw­ing just above, Cem­balest notes that “after years of research and schol­ar­ship, experts have deter­mined that Nighthawks was not inspired by one spe­cif­ic din­er. Rather, it was a com­pos­ite of wedge-shaped inter­sec­tions around Green­wich Avenue. Its curv­ing prow seems part­ly inspired by the Flat­iron Build­ing.” In a way, it almost seemed too real­is­ti­cal­ly New York to actu­al­ly exist in New York. Hop­per paint­ed a dis­til­la­tion of a sense of Amer­i­can place, and like many Amer­i­can places, I’ve nev­er quite known whether I’d love to drop in at the Nighthawks din­er (though I’d have to find a front door first), or whether I should count myself lucky that life has­n’t rel­e­gat­ed me to it. You can learn more about the fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry­board­ing of Nighthawks at Art News and see many more sketch­es. Speak­ing of the sketch­es, they come cour­tesy of The Whit­ney Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art.


via ART­News

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Painters Paint­ing: The Defin­i­tive Doc­u­men­tary Por­trait of the New York Art World (1940–1970)

Jack­son Pol­lock 51: Short Film Cap­tures the Painter Cre­at­ing Abstract Expres­sion­ist Art

William S. Bur­roughs Shows You How to Make “Shot­gun Art”

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • sludgehound says:

    Of course every­one focus­es on the right hand side with the main din­er. After many view­ings I focused on the left hand build­ing front in the back­ground. There’s the ‘miss­ing door’ of the din­er sneak­ing its way in.
    That door and side win­dows rep­re­sents a fair­ly com­mon ear­ly half of the 20th C. Hop­per used it 12 years before in his hyp­not­ic 1930 Ear­ly Sun­day Morn­ing.
    Iron­i­cal­ly I had a stu­dio in upstate NY in Mil­ton NY with near­ly the same build­ing exte­ri­or. That build­ing was fea­tured in Bran­do’s 1960 film The Fugi­tive Kind that was a stand in for a dusty South­ern town. Be amus­ing to know whether Hop­per, big cin­e­ma fan, was aware of the movie and its icon­ic look.
    The film took mixed reviews at the time (b&w too) but I think Hop­per would have appre­ci­at­ed this:
    In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther described the film as a “pierc­ing account of lone­li­ness and dis­ap­point­ment in a crass and tyran­ni­cal world … [Sid­ney Lumet’s] plain­ly per­cep­tive under­stand­ing of the deep-run­ning skills of the two stars, his dar­ing with faces in close-up and his out-right audac­i­ty in pac­ing his film at a mor­bid tem­po that lets time drag and pas­sions slow­ly shape are respon­si­ble for much of the insis­tence and the mes­mer­ic qual­i­ty that emerge . .

  • John Conolley says:

    Noth­ing to do with the Flat­iron Build­ing. It was a restau­rant on Sev­enth Avenue in Green­wich Vil­lage. I ate in it, back in the 70s. That piece of curved glass was ter­ri­bly impres­sive.

  • Avianti says:

    This is so neat! Shows how the idea starts! Awe­some!

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