Analysis of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”

Edward Hopper, “Nighthawks”, 1942, oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm (33 1/8 x 60 in.), Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1942, amid World War II, Edward Hopper painted one of his most celebrated masterpieces, titled “Nighthawks”. A rectangular 5-foot wide canvas presents a corner diner in an urban environment frozen in the dark hours of the night, a scene lit by ceiling-mounted fluorescents eclipsed by a long lip of a flat roof balanced on thin beams bracing tall, wide glass windows. We’re voyeurs to the diner’s world, catching four figures dressed in black, blue, red, and white, who command our attention from the vacant street outside. Warm yellow walls illuminate the interior against dark blues and muddled greens outside while dancing facets of architecture guide us to the woman in red studying an object in her upturned hand.

We enter the small world of urban dwellers, all gazing. Their sight-lines intersect toward what appears to be folded money being inspected in the woman’s hand, yet we can’t be sure — the lack of inscription leaves the viewer trapped in a paralleled wonder. The style of their crisp, clean, and flatly colored clothes is echoed by angular walls that close them in. The light casts shadows on their faces accentuating cheekbones; the man’s eyes shaded by a fedora’s curved brim. A smokeless cigarette points from his deft hand in front of hers, almost touching, but a depth of space reveals they aren’t — a peculiar suggestion of romance. Her coffee cup exhales steam; his only a reflection on the counter. Across the long wooden surface that zags toward us, a lone empty glass stands next to a napkin holder with salt & pepper shakers, offering symbols for the waiter, couple drinking coffee, but who is the glass? Then, we notice a man in a dark suit and wide-brimmed with his back against us, proportionally apart from the main focal point of the painting yet directly in the center of the composition. Edward Hopper was known for wearing a wide-brimmed fedora, so the the artist present is plausible. Looking closer, he lifts a glass with his right arm above its shadow on the counter, newspaper folded flat beneath his left.

The rhythmic geometric planes of folded newspaper and dollar bills, dramatically lit architecture, and crisp fashion contrast the stoic detailed expressions which hold a pause of introspection. Hopper’s masterpiece presents a moment of wrinkled stillness against the melodrama of WWII across the ocean, reminding us the quiet night is never simple.

Works Cited

  1. Hopper, Edward, Nighthawks, 1942, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago,

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About the Author

Joshua Hoering is a writer, designer, educator, artist, and speaker based in Chicago, Illinois. He’s currently working on an MFA in Graphic Design & Visual Experience at the Savannah College of Art & Design.

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