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Monday, September 23, 2019

Hopper's Nighthawks

The Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper
It's not often that a work of art is recognized as "great" without the passage of a number of years (sometimes centuries) after its creation and very often long after the artist's death. Vincent van Gogh is a prime example. Henri Rousseau is another. Several of the Impressionists and Post-impressionists also fit that bill. On the other hand painters such as Leonardo, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Rockwell were recognized for the genius of their work well within their lifetimes. In May, 1942, a little-known painter and printmaker from upstate New York sold his most famous work to the Chicago Art Institute for $3000 (a very respectable price for a painting by an artist of limited stature at the time). Edward Hopper had completed his moody The Nighthawks (above) in January of that year, barely four months earlier.

Other than the artist himself, Hopper's wife of 41 years, Jo (Nivison) Hopper, also his in-house art historian, may well be the force most responsible for his rise to fame in the art world and his remaining one of the most respected American artists of all time. Much of what we know of Hopper's professional life we owe to her. From Jo’s notes, we learn that the painting’s title is a playful joke about the strong, beaklike nose of the smoking man. This nickname is itself a glimmer of human tenderness, a light mockery which suddenly brings the whole painting to life. We see Hopper's night hawk, just one of a small group, silent souls in a time of global war, in the large, lonely city, in a diner, and, like many of us, they are, alone/together.

The Art Student
(Miss Josephine Nivison),
Robert Henri

Edward Hopper Self-portrait, 1903

Edward Hopper was often evasive and guarded. He frequently denied stringently the popular readings of his paintings. He did not, he would insist, intentionally im-bue his urban scenes with an unspoken pregnancy of human feeling, an eerie, uncommunicative atmosphere of the mod-ern metropolis, with which they’ve become associated. But when reflecting on his most successful and evocative painting, even Hopper himself had to admit it: “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” Nighthawks was completed in January of 1942, just weeks after Pearl Harbor and the United States subsequent joining of the Second World War. One might guess that a downtown diner would be alive with news, debate, and speculation at such a historic time. Hopper instead chooses to observe an oppressive silence, picking out the figures and their features in a way which suggests great, silent distances between them, despite sharing the same bubble of space and time.

The neighborhood....almost deserted.
The architecture of the paint-ing seems designed to com-partmentalize, divide, and separate. It’s all sharp verti-cals and pronounced horizon-tals, frames and doorways, shadows and blockages. The detailed rendering of the em-pty shop across the street (right) is a careful and potent observation of utter absence. The painting’s strange silence is given force by the compo-sition of the four people who occupy it. In her notes on the painting, Hopper’s wife des-cribes them as a good looking blond boy in white behind the counter. There's a girl in red blouse and brown hair (for whom she posed) eating a sandwich. The male "night hawk" (beak) wears a dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, and blue shirt holds cigarette.

The center offers little of interest to the viewer.
Occupying the direct center of the large canvas sits ;a dark, sinister figure, his back turned to us, unwilling or unable to communicate (above). Our eyes catch him first, but receive nothing in re-turn. So we scan and look elsewhere. The activity of the man behind the counter (below) gives us a kind of hope. He’s the most dynamic of the group by far. In the act of straightening up, he shows his face and searches for some response from the man and woman at the counter. He plays the choric role, mirroring our desire for communication. The two stony figures do not reciprocate. He might as well be talking to the two inanimate, coffee dispensing tanks behind him, which they resemble.

The man behind the counter seems to communicate, but doesn't.
The relationship between the man and woman sitting at the counter is perhaps one of the most intriguing, yet mysterious, relationships between any two figures in any painting throughout art history (below). The woman morosely raises some morsel of food to her mouth, seeming mechanical, without appetite. The man allows his cigarette to smoke itself out, his blank eyes shadowed by the peak of his hat. There’s maybe a subtle hope of tenderness, though, if you look closely at the composition of their arms and hands. The man’s right arm and the woman’s left form the exact mirror-angle of one another. Each forearm stretches along a perfect perpendicular. The angle of the woman’s other arm matches the man’s right arm exactly. This is a geometric harmony which cannot be ignored. It is part of the painting’s quiet language.

Are they together or simply together apart?
And though the woman’s hand seems to be placed behind the man’s, on the two-dimensional plane of the canvas, their skin-tones overlap. As far as the application of paint goes, Hopper has essentially allowed their hands to meet. The longer you look, the more the fingers of each hand appear to shiver with tenderness and desire. Perhaps these boundaries can be crossed. After all, by some miracle we. as viewers. have been allowed to see and read these people through the window, and then through the second window, which is the surface of the painting. It's from Jo’s notes that we learn that the painting’s title is a playful joke about the strong, beaklike nose of the smoking man (posed by Hopper himself). This nickname is itself a glimmer of human tenderness, a light mockery which suddenly brings the whole thing to life. Here he is, our night hawk. The group, silent, in a time of global war, in the large, lonely city, in a diner, and, like all of us, here they are, alone/together.

Nighthawks preliminary drawings.
So, where exactly is this diner Hopper made so famous? Well, needless to say, in a city like New York, the actual diner has long ago ceased to exist. In fact it never really existed at all as depicted by Hopper. He used an amalgamation of several similar eateries in the Greenwich neighborhood. Yet Hopper claimed THE Nighthawks diner was based on a real place though he was cagey about naming the actual eatery. His only clue was that the diner was a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet. Therefore, the actual location of his inspiration has long been a matter of debate. Popular opinion favors Mulry Square, a small triangular lot at Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue. However, historical records show that a gas station occupied the lot in the early 1940s, not a diner. In 2013, New York Magazine set out to track down the real inspiration for Nighthawks, scouring streets and historical photographs to settle the discussion once and for all. They ultimately determined Hopper's picture-perfect diner was, indeed, made up of various elements of Manhattan architecture. These components include a glass-and-steel storefront on 11th Street, the curve of the Flatiron Building, and a long-gone restaurant called Crawford Lunch. Fittingly, a 3D version of Nighthawks was created within a display window of the Flatiron Building in the summer of 2013. In Block 613, Lot 62, (below) on the corner where 7th Avenue South hits Perry Street, the 1950s mapmaker has drawn a rectangle and written the word DINER. Sometime between the late 1930s and the 1950s, a diner appeared on the southwest corner of the Mulry Square triangle. Hopper completed The Nighthawks in 1942.

A map of the Greenwich Avenue area with early guesses marked with X's and the likely actual site (just above) circled in red.

The experts comment:

Nighthawks has inspired countless other artists. By the same token, there may be some influence from Van Gogh's Café At Night. Based on the similar theme and concentration on the play of light at night, Van Gogh's piece may have sparked Hopper's ideas. Interestingly, Café at Night was exhibited in New York in January of 1942, right as Hopper was working on Nighthawks. Though well after Hopper began his painting, it's probable he would have seen Van Gogh’s painting, inasmuch as his own works were also on display at the same venue. Among several other works later inspired by The Nighthawks, likely the most famous is Gottfried Heinwein's version titled Boulevard Of Broken Dreams (below).

Boulevard Of Broken Dreams, Gottfried Heinwein
based on Hopper's The Nighthawks. Can you identify
the tragic 1950s movie celebrities? 


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