“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.
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.