Oct. 7, 2002
-- "Night in brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Cherry wood counters and tops of surrounding stools. Lights on metal tanks at rear right. Brilliant streaks of jade green tiles three-quarters across canvas at base of glass. Very good-looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse and brown hair eating sandwich..."
It could be a description of just about any diner in any major city, some place passed at two in the morning, its icy glow leaking into dark streets. It could be any place, or perhaps a composite memory, pieced together from countless diners glimpsed in passing. In fact, it's Edward Hopper's outline for his most famous painting, Nighthawks
For Morning Edition
, NPR's Scott Simon
reports on Nighthawks
and its painter. As part of Present at the Creation
, NPR's ongoing series on the origins of American icons, Simon looks at how an image that most people take for granted in their daily lives has become one of America's most famous pieces of art.
Hopper was already a success by the time he painted Nighthawks
, having had his first one-man show in January of 1920 at the Whitney Studio Club in Greenwich Village. Hopper made his name by painting houses and other buildings -- sometimes urban row houses, sometimes barns or farmhouses set, lonely, among hills in a rural landscape. But no matter what the setting, Hopper painted from the outside looking in.
is no exception. The painting -- which Hopper apparently based upon a diner somewhere in Greenwich Village, where he lived for 54 years -- peers in on the restaurant and its patrons from the street. It's simple, and almost eerily familiar. It's easy to imagine that Hopper walked past this very restaurant every day of his life.
"It was completely conceptualized... He had it in his mind's eye before it hit the canvas," says Kymberly Pinder, an associate professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Nighthawks
hangs today. "The way that Hopper worked was that he took sketches while he was observing around New York City. He would do sketches and then come back to the studio and do a combination of studio poses with his wife and his imagination."
Hopper's wife, Josephine, was a former actress, and a painter. After they married, in 1924, she sat as a model for every woman Edward painted. Hopper's acclaim continued to grow during his lifetime, but instead of trading his fame for influence in the New York social scene, the artist apparently preferred the privacy of his studio, or his house on Cape Cod. It was there that Hopper painted many of his most famous works, paintings in which use of natural light became one of his trademarks.
"Light was very important to Hopper," Pinder says. "He told Lloyd Goodrich, who was an art historian who recorded many interviews with early 20th century American painters, something like, 'I guess I'm not very human. All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.'"
Hopper spent a good deal of time doing just that in the 1930s, while living on Cape Cod, but after growing restless with the limited subject matter, he cast about for a new focus. Something about that restaurant, and those figures inside, attracted his attention.
Behind the windows, a busboy stoops behind the counter, while three patrons, a man with his back to the window, and a couple facing out, sit in apparent silence. No door is visible, so even if a passerby wanted to interrupt their solitude, it would be impossible. There's just enough detail -- and just enough hidden -- to give viewers the opportunity to create back-stories for the nighthawks on their own.
Is the couple fighting? Or are they just tired after a long night out? Who is the other man? Is he, as Hopper's verbal-sketch of the painting described him, "dark" and "sinister?"
you always want to have the narrative, it sort of begs for us to tell its story," Pinder says. "We don't want to pass by and ignore them. We want to figure out what they're doing. And why they're there in that diner so late at night."
The Edward Hopper Scrapbook
, compiled by the staff of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, "offers a glimpse into Hopper's life, his friends, and...paintings."
Read more about Nighthawks
at The Art Institute of Chicago, where it is on exhibit.
Get a close-up look
(click on image to zoom in).
View Early Sunday Morning
and other Hopper paintings at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art.
See some of Hopper's early works
at the National Gallery of Art.