Edward Hopper’s Iconic Painting Nighthawks Explained in a 7‑Minute Video Introduction

If any one paint­ing stands for mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, Nighthawks does. In fact, Edward Hop­per’s 1942 can­vas of four fig­ures in a late-night New York City din­er may qual­i­fy as the most vivid evo­ca­tion of that coun­try and time in any form. For Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the video essay­ist Nerd­writer, the expe­ri­ence of Nighthawks goes well beyond the visu­al realm. “I’ve always thought of him in a sort of aro­mat­ic way,” says Puschak of the artist, “because his paint­ings evoke the same kinds of feel­ings and mem­o­ries that I get from the sense of smell, as if he was chan­nel­ing direct­ly into my lim­bic sys­tem, exca­vat­ing moments that were stored deeply away.”

But Puschak would­n’t have expe­ri­enced the ear­ly 1940s first-hand, much less the turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry peri­od in which Hop­per grew up. Nor would have most of the peo­ple cap­ti­vat­ed by Nighthawks today, much less those count­less appre­ci­a­tors as yet unborn. How does Hop­per, in his most famous paint­ing and many oth­ers, at once cap­ture a time and a place while also res­onat­ing on a deep­er, more uni­ver­sal­ly human lev­el?

Puschak takes up that ques­tion in “Look through the Win­dow,” a video essay that exam­ines the pow­er of Hop­per’s art, “clean, smooth, and almost too real,” through a break­down of Nighthawks, an expres­sion of all of the artist’s themes: “lone­li­ness, alien­ation, voyeurism, qui­et con­tem­pla­tion, and more.”

The effec­tive­ness of the paint­ing’s com­po­si­tion, in Puschak’s analy­sis, comes from such ele­ments as the ambi­gu­i­ty of the rela­tion­ships between its char­ac­ters, the strong diag­o­nal lines of the din­er’s archi­tec­ture, the use of light in the dark­ness, and the win­dows so clear as to look “as if they’re not even there,” all so mem­o­rably real­ized by Hop­per’s painstak­ing ded­i­ca­tion to his work. (His long and involved process, which we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here, even includ­ed a kind of sto­ry­board­ing.) “As slow­ly and delib­er­ate­ly as he paint­ed,” Puschak says, “he want­ed us to look — real­ly look, and to be made vul­ner­a­ble, as a view­er always is.”

Many Amer­i­cans must have felt such vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty with a spe­cial acute­ness at the time Hop­per fin­ished paint­ing Nighthawks, “the weeks and days fol­low­ing the bomb­ing of Pearl Har­bor, when every­one in New York City was para­noid about anoth­er attack.” Every­one, that is, except Edward Hop­per, who kept his stu­dio light on and kept on paint­ing beneath it. “The future was very uncer­tain at this moment in time, as uncer­tain as the dark­ness that frames the patrons of this din­er, a dark­ness they’re launched into by Hop­per’s com­po­si­tion and our gaze.” Some might say that times, in Amer­i­ca and else­where, haven’t become much more cer­tain since. We, like Hop­per, could do much worse than con­tin­u­ing to cre­ate ever more delib­er­ate­ly, and to see ever more clear­ly.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Edward Hop­per “Sto­ry­board­ed” His Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks

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

Whit­ney Muse­um Puts Online 21,000 Works of Amer­i­can Art, By 3,000 Artists

The Muse­um of Mod­ern Art (MoMA) Puts Online 65,000 Works of Mod­ern Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (11)
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  • Delila says:

    One of my favs as well. Total­ly enjoyed your video essay. More, more, more.

  • Bill W. says:

    …or, maybe Hop­per just want­ed to paint the pic­ture of a din­er at night.

  • Nancy says:

    Oh! That was won­der­ful!!! Edward Hop­per is one of my favorite artists! Thank you

  • Renee Ballard says:

    Excel­lent com­men­tary; good pace and back­ground to the artist.

  • Bill Veno says:

    Thanks for your insight. Con­sid­er­ing his pre­ci­sion, I won­der why he paint­ed the very lumi­nous tri­an­gle of light out­side the din­er, pre­sum­ably across the far street, but at the paint­ed edge of the din­er. The tri­an­gle of light does­n’t seem to eme­nate from any­where. Your thoughts?

  • Kathryn Scarlett says:

    That was very well explained I am a artist myself and I hve always enjoyed this paint­ing so much!

  • Rich Shadrin says:

    As a for­mer art teacher and prof — your expli­ca­tion of Nighthawks was an excel­lent analy­sis and rich exam­i­na­tion of the paint­ing and Hop­per — also one of my favorites. I it as a sub­ject when teach­ing high school stu­dents and then their teach­ers about how to read a paint­ing and get­ting inside the feel­ing and mood made real by the artist. Ear­ly Sun­day Morn­ing was the eas­i­est paint­ing to teach how, by ana­lyz­ing the falling light, lack of peo­ple, etc., even though a city scene, I led stu­dents to fig­ure out the name of the paint­ing. Thanks for a great treat.

  • Ami Hasan says:

    thanks for the video essay.

    You might get more dona­tions if the ”donate” but­ton worked.

  • JILL M PETERS says:

    Your poet­ic cri­tique tru­ly enhanced my appre­ci­a­tion of this artist. Thank you.

  • Ti says:

    Dis­tin­to. Audaz.

  • Steven Meinrath says:

    Beau­ti­ful. Thank you. I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on a jig­saw puz­zle of the night hawks. Puz­zles are a great way to get to know a work of art. You spent so much time star­ing at them, par­tic­u­lar­ly at the lines and tex­tures and shad­ing. Your love­ly com­men­tary helps me appre­ci­ate this beau­ti­ful paint­ing even more.

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