A critic cannot analyze anything until he or she develops the skill of looking at something with fresh eyes. Imagine a teenage boy who has fallen in love for the first time. He listens to a sappy love song he heard a year ago and to which he never gave a second thought. But now that he feels the kind of emotion expressed in the song, he appreciates it on a higher level.
I hope that I can help you have that experience of sensing anew relative to a famous painting, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.
It’s a diner. Big deal. Let’s start with the obvious and work our way to the subtle. It’s dark so it must be nighttime. There are four people. There’s a man and a woman sitting together. One man is sitting alone. One man in white looks like he works there.
It’s apparent that this painting is old. The clothes the people are wearing are out of fashion now. The style of the diner is also out-of-date.
Where is this painting set? It seems like the United States. It’s not entirely obvious but it seems more like a big city than either a suburb or a small town.
What about the title? Usually it’s a good idea to start one’s analysis with title, but this time I’ve saved it for last. What is a “nighthawk?” Perhaps it’s a large bird of prey that hunts after the sun sets. But there are no birds in the picture. Maybe it’s a metaphor. It might mean people who stay up late. Like night-owls.
Let’s step outside the four corners of the painting. When was this painting created? 1942. What was going on at that time? Diligent students of U.S. History know that December 7, 1941, was the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. We have to remember what a shock that was to Americans. Many have compared Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
There’s a pervading sense of loneliness and introspection in this painting. The four characters aren’t looking at each other. One man is sitting by himself. Maybe one of them has lost a family member or friend in the war.
Here’s something the artist himself missed when he made the painting. Where is the diner’s door? Look carefully. There isn’t one. There are two bars fixing the window in place, but there’s no door. The lack of a door illustrates isolation and entrapment. Hopper denied that he had intended to express this in Nighthawks, but he admitted that “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” 1
If Hopper’s shadowy depiction of a diner at night seems familiar, it’s probably because this painting has had a major impact on culture. It’s been alluded to in numerous movies, TV shows, comics, and songs. Some of the more notable examples include The Sting, Blade Runner, That 70’s Show, and The Simpsons.