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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