What Makes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks a Great Painting?: A Video Essay

“Even though you may live in one of the most crowd­ed and busy cities on Earth, it is still pos­si­ble to feel entire­ly alone.” Though hard­ly a nov­el sen­ti­ment, this nev­er­the­less makes for a high­ly suit­able entrée into a video essay on Edward Hop­per’s Nighthawks. Its cre­ator is gal­lerist and Youtu­ber James Payne, whose chan­nel Great Art Explained has already tak­en on the likes of Leonar­do’s Mona Lisa, Michelan­gelo’s David, Andy Warhol’s Mar­i­lyn Dip­tych, and Hierony­mus Bosch’s The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights. Nighthawks, safe to say, makes a more imme­di­ate impres­sion on us 21st-cen­tu­ry urban­ites than any of those works, what­ev­er our indi­vid­ual degrees of alien­ation. But why?

Hop­per paint­ed what he knew, and espe­cial­ly so in the case of his sin­gle best-known work. Though the din­er Nighthawks takes as its set­ting exists nowhere in New York, the artist had spent his entire adult life in the city, an immer­sion that allowed him to cre­ate a street-cor­ner scene that feels real­er than real.

But the emo­tion exud­ed by that din­er’s patrons must run deep­er than the stan­dard urban malaise. Eigh­teen years into a bit­ter and dys­func­tion­al mar­riage, the inspi­ra­tion for all the “dis­con­nect­ed and unhap­py cou­ples he por­trays time and again in his paint­ings,” Hop­per knew inti­mate­ly more than one kind of human lone­li­ness. He him­self act­ed as mod­el for all three of Nighthawks’ male fig­ures, in fact, and his wife Josephine posed for the female one.

“It was down to Jo that Edward became a suc­cess,” says Payne, “a fact he nev­er thanked her for.” An artist in her own right, she got Hop­per his first solo show in 1924, when he was 42. Up to then he’d worked as a mag­a­zine illus­tra­tor, but even by the time of Nighthawks in 1942, he clear­ly had­n’t for­got­ten the mis­ery of his day job. Nor had he dis­card­ed what it gave him: “along with the prepa­ra­tion skills he picked up, it also helped to hone his sto­ry­telling abil­i­ties.” An avid movie­go­er, he “planned Nighthawks like a film­mak­er, sto­ry­board­ing the paint­ing ahead of its cre­ation.” Film­mak­ers have respond­ed to Hop­per’s cin­e­mat­ic paint­ing with trib­utes of their own: Her­bert Ross re-cre­at­ed the din­er in Pen­nies from Heav­en, as did Wim Wen­ders in The End of Vio­lence, evok­ing Hop­per’s “world of lone­li­ness, anguish, and qui­et iso­la­tion.” Iron­ic, then, that so many in Nighthawks gen­er­a­tions of appre­ci­a­tors have felt less alone while regard­ing it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sev­en Videos Explain How Edward Hopper’s Paint­ings Expressed Amer­i­can Lone­li­ness and Alien­ation

How Edward Hop­per “Sto­ry­board­ed” His Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks

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

10 Paint­ings by Edward Hop­per, the Most Cin­e­mat­ic Amer­i­can Painter of All, Turned into Ani­mat­ed GIFs

How Edward Hopper’s Paint­ings Inspired the Creepy Sus­pense of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Win­dow

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks: The 2020 Edi­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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