16: 1942- Nighthawks

In this episode, we are looking at the most iconic work in American Art. But we are going to take it out of its larger cultural context to focus on the context of when it was first created. We're going back to January of 1942, exactly one month after Pearl Harbor.

Edward Hopper,  Nighthawks , 1942, Art Institute of Chicago, 1942.51.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, Art Institute of Chicago, 1942.51.

Welcome to Accession. Today, we’re at the Art Institute of Chicago, in Chicago, Illinois. Or at least, you could be. You could enter the museum, go straight on, under the stairs, through the Buddhist and Hindu art, say hello to Ganesha along the way, find your way back past the courtyard with the greek sculptures, and from there, head into the American Wing, up the stairs and into the first gallery on your right. You could do that. And the painting would be right there. But I actually think that this episode will be just as enjoyable sitting in some diner or coffee shop late at night, with your favorite warm beverage in front of you and a view out the window.  Today, we’re looking at Art Institute of Chicago accession number 1942.51, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

Now it could be the bias of my upbringing, and the culture I was steeped in, but to me, this is hands down the most iconic image in all of American art. (I could hear an argument for American Gothic, which is actually on the wall behind you, or maybe a Norman Rockwell, but I digress.) Nighthawks has been copied, parodied, reinterpreted, and propagated from the moment of its creation in 1942 all the way to the present. I probably only have to mention three people sitting in a diner, while a man in white stoops behind the counter, and you've got that image in your head. Ultimately, Nighthawks speaks to something deeply, deeply American. And perhaps the exact nature of the world he puts us in is distinctly urban, and distinctly white. But as I was sitting in a Starbucks in the suburbs late at night writing this piece, I couldn't help but find some camaraderie in these four hunched over figures, leaning against the counter in front of them, sipping on a late night cup of coffee.    

With it’s notoriety, Nighthawks has earned itself any number of interpretations, from the aesthetic delight of the film noir, to the psychosexual nature of voyeurism and gender, to the commonality of isolation that our three patrons and the worker might be sharing. And what’s so great about a Hopper painting is that none of those interpretations are inherently more right than any other. Edward Hopper claimed that he was always trying to paint himself. Quite literally he used himself in a mirror to model the men, and his wife, Josephine Nivison, to model the women. But he is also painting his mind and his emotional state. In doing so, he creates this big open space in which we can fill in the details that matter to us. His paintings don’t tell a story. They capture an emotion, a reaction, a point of feeling along the line of a story. The rest of that story is ours to fill in.

In your story, you might be the young man behind the counter, trying to get the place cleaned up so he can go as soon as they close, as soon as these customers leave; or at least just trying to stay busy so that he doesn’t have to engage with them. I’m always drawn to the way his gaze cuts between the two sets of guests, out of the corner of the diner. He may not be the only one who doesn’t want to be there, and doesn’t have a choice, but he is the only one who is free to express that desire, if in nothing more meaningful than a longing gaze out the window.


Or you might be the couple, whose beak like noses allegedly gave the piece it’s foul name; she all in red, he all in blue. Their overlapping hands would be touching if he would stop lifting the cigarette up and down to his lips, if she would stop playing with the flipbook of matches she holds to light his cigarettes when he is so inclined. Except that he has stopped lifting the cigarette up and down, she never struck a match to light it in the first place, and their hands are still not touching. By proximity, props, even complementary colors, the two are inextricably bound and simultaneously isolated.


Or maybe you’re the fourth man, isolation distilled down to its rawest form. Somehow you get the sense that his back is turned to everyone. He glances up at the couple sitting across from him, and, too lost in his own solitude, looks beyond their obvious disconnect to see only some people who have someone else. That’s more than he’s got. He glances up at the man behind the counter, washing dishes or doing his chores, and looks beyond the obvious frustration with his work to see only a man with a purpose and a drive. That’s more than he’s got. He looks down at his coffee, that he is slowly sipping down until it hits the bottom, and there's nothing left to drink. That’s what he’s got.

Fourth Man.jpg

Or maybe you’re standing out here, across the street, with Mr. Hopper, looking in on the diner and seeing a bit of yourself in all four of them. You can see right through them. And maybe, just maybe you could fix at least some of their discontent if you could only get them to start talking to each other, get them all to realize their commonalities. But there’s no door to this dinner. So you are just as trapped out here, as they are trapped in there, with the glass, invisible, in between you, penetrable only by human sight. You can see right through it.

Like I said, there are many different ways to read this painting, many places to put yourself, many stories you could tell about it. And this is the kind of timelessness, disjoint from the circumstances of his specific day and age that Hopper strove for in all of his work. He was trying to paint himself, his mental state, because he knew there was something there that everyone could relate to. But for a moment, we’re going to work against Hopper’s wishes, and consider this painting precisely in the circumstances of his specific day.

For as much as this diner might be an island of light amidst the darkness, Hopper himself was no island. He was just as affected by the times he lived in as anyone else, even if he tried to make it seem otherwise. So for a moment, we’re going to consider this canvas in a context that we don’t usually hear it talked about in. Let me take you back to a time before Nighthawks, when this canvas was just one of the many white canvases in Hopper’s studio.

Let me take you back to 1940. In May, Neville Chamberlain retreated from parliament and the British retreated from Dunkirk.

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In June, Marshall Petain retreated France from the war, signing over Paris to Germany.

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In July, women and children retreated to the English countryside as the German Luftwaffe began it’s prolonged series of bombing raids on the city of London.

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And that very summer, as they did every summer, Edward and Josephine retreated from the din of Greenwich Village, New York City, New York to their seasonal home in South Truro, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

It was in August of the Summer of 1940 that’s Edward Hopper wrote a letter to his friend and fellow painter, Guy Pene du Bois, outlining exactly how the war in Europe was affecting him and Josephine.


Truro, Mass., August 11, 1940

Dear Guy:

I have received your check for twenty five dollars on account. Thank you.

We are evidently eye witness to one of those great shiftings of power that have occurred periodically in Europe, as long as there has been a Europe, and there is not much to be done about it, except to suffer the anxiety of those on the side lines, and to try not to be shifted ourselves.

It seems that I have no definite philosophy that would be a consolation in these times, but if I had one, it would be of no use to you, for you would not like it and no doubt would despise it. Jo seems to be no better off than I am for philosophy, for she burst into tears among all the groceries in a store here in Wellfleet when she heard of the fall of Paris, and was patted and consoled by the grocer’s wife, who I feel sure was much puzzled to know why anybody should actually weep over something happened so far away from Wellfleet.

Painting seems to be a good enough refuge from all this, if one can get one’s dispersed mind together long enough to concentrate upon it.

Hope your class is going well, and best wishes from both of us.

Yours as ever,

Edward Hopper

He wouldn’t be able to get his dispersed mind together long enough to concentrate on a painting until February of 1941, when he would paint Girlie Show, a painting of a nude stripper strutting across the stage, while the heads of the audience and the band dot the bottom of the canvas. But it's creation would mark the beginning of yet another long painters block throughout the remainder of the year.

This period is represented by nothing better than a photograph, captured by Arnold Newman in November of ‘41, Hopper in his New York Studio standing in front of a giant, expansive, white canvas.

Edward Hopper , Arnold Newman, 1941.

Edward Hopper, Arnold Newman, 1941.

But between that mid-November photo, and the middle of December, two things occured that would go down in infamy. The first is that on December 7th, the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, launching the U.S. into a war that they had hoped would never come. The second is that Edward Hopper was struck with an idea, launching him into the meticulous and focused process that would eventually produce his most famous work.

“Ed refused to take any interest in our very likely prospect of being bombed- and we live right under glass skylights and a roof that leaks whenever it rains."

That's Josephine, on December 17th, just ten days after Pearl Harbor, writing to Marrion Hopper, Ed’s sister, talking about the blackout drills in New York City.

"He refuses to make for any more precautions and only jeers at me for packing a knapsack with towels and keys and soap and checkbook, shirt, stockings, garters in case we ran to race outdoors in our nighties. For the black-out we have no shade over the sky light... but Ed can’t be bothered. He’s doing a new canvas and simply can’t be interrupted! The Rhen gallery invites E. to remove some of his pictures to a store house so that the whole collection won’t be in one place. Frank Rhen is very concerned and making many precautionary measures. I can’t say I’m a bit panicky but I’m the kind that believes in precautions, and in a matter that everyone is concerned in, I can’t see why anyone refuses to take an interest. Hitler has said that he intends to destroy New York and Washington... It takes over a month for E to finish a canvas and this one is only just begun... E doesn’t want me even in the studio. I haven’t gone thru even for things I want in the kitchen.”

Following America’s declaration of war on Germany, and Hitler’s response of threatening to bomb New York and D.C. next, New York was in a state of high anxiety. The city regularly practiced turning all of the lights off to avoid the detection by bombers at night, but Ed wouldn’t join in. He was at work with a canvas. The process was slow, meticulous, and involved. He would plan every detail, arange every object, and draw many, many sketches. And we can get a sense from Jo that when Ed was focused on his work, he was focused.

Edward Hopper, Studies for  Nighthawks , 1941 or 1942, fabricated chalk on paper. Whitney Museum of American Art.

Edward Hopper, Studies for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942, fabricated chalk on paper. Whitney Museum of American Art.

By January 22, the painting was complete. “Ed has just finished a very fine picture- a lunch counter at night with 3 figures. Night Hawks would be a fine name for it. E. posed for the 2 men in a mirror and I for the girl. He was about a month and half working on it interested all the time, too busy to get excited over public outrages. So we stay out of fights.”

He showed the painting in a gallery in New York, where it was bought almost immediately by Daniel Rich, then director of the Art Institute of Chicago, for $3000 and trading back one of Hoppers older paintings. And it has hung there ever since. (With the occasional road show.)

But for now, let’s stay on that date, January 22nd, 1942, and stand where Hopper stood, as he painted the final strokes on the canvas, stood back, and looked at the world he had been painting for a month and a half.

The light shining out of that diner means a lot more now that we have a context for the darkness around it. Those windows are not dark just because it’s night. They are dark because of fear. They are dark because the people behind those darkened windows don’t want to be seen. And while their fear may be hidden by the darkness, that’s not the case for the folks in the diner.


You might be the young man behind the counter, in his white uniform, looking out the front of the diner, staring down the darkness. He's ready to trade this uniform in for another, ready to get done with this job, and move onto the next. He knows there's work to do, and he knows he could have a part in all that.


Or you might be the couple, each holding onto their little part of the something, or someone, who is far from them, from this moment in this diner. This conflict has put a divide between them. He is proud of his kid, and he is afraid that vocalizing his fear will delegitimize his pride. She is afraid for her kid, and is afraid that vocalizing her pride will delegitimize her fear. Their child was the spark between them for so long. They once knew how to make that spark themselves, and it’s not that it would be hard to remember, but they just want their baby to come home.


Or you might be the fourth man, whose love is over there, fighting his part of the fight. He knows he should stop reading the paper, but he always keeps today's copy tucked under his arm, his way of keeping him near, his thing to hold on to. He looks up at the couple across from him, and for a moment he’s jealous, but he knows. He knows that they, that all the people in this diner, are exactly the reason that he is over there.

Fourth Man.jpg

Or maybe you’re standing out here, across the street, with Mr. Hopper, looking in on the diner and seeing all this fear, anxiety, and sadness; seeing a world just waiting to get bombed, having them turn out the lights, so they don't have to see the bombs coming; seeing these few who hold onto the light, and their regular evening cup of joe, just to hold onto some normalcy, just to persist through the darkness, and not knowing what to say to any of them. You’ve heard each of their voices call out at you, but you paint them in silence because that’s all that you can offer them in turn. And even if there was a door to the diner, you’d probably just go in, order a cup of coffee, and add to those silences.


This is probably the part where you’re expecting me to say something like “Hopper didn't know how to say his philosophy to cope with the anxiety of war but if we just look between the brushstrokes... see the light as a metaphor for...” But I’m not so dishonest as to cram in a hopeful ending.

The truth is that philosophies are just stories. And stories sometimes give us hope, sometimes dont. Hopper isn't painting a story. He’s painting a zeitgeist, a moment, an emotion, a question. And questions demand that we tell stories.

So if you’d like, if it brings you some comfort, you can tell the hopeful story. Jump to the end where they all come back from the war, where the diner is full again, and the world goes on as it was, and you go to your favorite coffee shop and sip on your favorite warm beverage. I won't stop you.

But that’s not where I’m going to go. For now I want to live in the question that Hopper is asking inn 1942: What are we going to do about this conflict?

And that’s not a question Hopper knows how to answer, yet. Nor should he. The war has only just started. So let’s give it a year. In the next four episodes of Accession, we are going to look at four different paintings, all painted in 1943, each with their own answer to that question, each a different slice of the experiences in the United States during the war. And maybe by the end, we’ll know what we should do about this conflict, we’ll know how they handled it 75 years ago, and we might know what we need to do today. But for that you’ll have to stay tuned.


Information on Nighthawks and its relation to World War Two came from “Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, Surrealism, and the War” by Gail Levin. (1996)


Eddie Bert, I’m Thru With Love, 1956.

Eddie Bert, In a Meditating Mood, 1956.

Glenn Miller, Live from the Hotel Pennsylvania, New York, December 21, 1940.

Ella Fitzgerald, My Heart and I Decided, 1942.

Frank Sinatra and the Bobby Tucker Singers, Close to You, 1943.

Special Thanks:

The voice of Edward Hopper was performed by Laurence Jay Besch, and the voice of Josephine Nivison Hopper was performed by V Silverman.


Our theme music was performed by Mike Harmon, with recording, editing, and mixing from Casey Dawson. Our show art was made by V Silverman. This episode was produced, written, recorded, and edited by T.H. Ponders.