Bo Howarth
Bo Howarth, NIU

Bo Howarth graduated from Lake Zurich High School. Some of his interests include horticulture, progressive rock, Adult Swim, and consciousness. He is an undeclared business major. Of “A Visual Study of Nighthawks” Bo said, “This essay forced me to comment on a work of art at a much deeper level than I had ever contemplated before, a level that I would never have reached otherwise.”

Nighthawks
“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper (1942). The Art Institute of Chicago.

Very few of today’s works of art are quite as distinguishable or draw up as much emotion as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  The painting is fairly simple—a scene at a late night diner in the city—but it speaks volumes.  The diner is very clean and well lit, with a large, triangular wooden bar at the center of the store surrounded by stools.  The painting features just four people: three men and one woman. One man sits at the bar with his back facing the viewer. A few seats to the left a man and a woman sit next to each other, and the viewer sees their side profile.  The final man, the bar attendant, stands behind the bar gazing out of the diner’s curved glass window.  The diner is located on an empty street corner and serves as the only light source illuminating the desolate street.  While this description of the painting is accurate, it is impossible to convey the full emotion of the scene with text. One must truly read the art on multiple levels to grasp its meaning, as the subtleties of the painting truly express its message of American loneliness.

Upon seeing the painting, one emotion comes to mind above all others—loneliness. None of the characters featured in the painting seem to be concerned with any of the others. Even the man and woman, who appear to be together, do not show the slightest interest in each other.  The man seems to pay more attention to his burning cigarette than to the woman next to him.  She clearly shows no interest in him either, staring intently at what looks to be a book of matches.  The bar attendant initially seems to be looking at the man next to the woman, but upon closer observation it becomes clear that he is not looking at the man, but past him, out the window.    His face is stuck in a cringe, his jaw tensed and eyes strained, but the viewer can only imagine why.  Perhaps the cause is simply the apparent emptiness of the diner, although while the loneliness is nearly overwhelming, it seems to be a comfortable lonely environment.  Perhaps this is because the loneliness is shared by so many people.

The painting features very similar elements as the classic noir films of the 1940s and 50s.  One common motif of these films is silence, which Nighthawks seems to be full of. None of the customers or the proprietor is engaged in any form of conversation, and it seems that the room has been silent for a while.  Each is lost in his or her own world.  The couple reads as conflicted; each looks as though they want to say something to the other, but neither can find a way to say it, so they each direct their energy into something else—in the man’s case a cigarette, and in the women’s a matchbook.  Conflict and emotional unrest between couples is a very common element in film noir.  The man with his back turned to the viewer is very reminiscent of the classic noir antihero.  The man seems to be deep in thought, brooding over a cup of coffee.  As in many noir films, it is what is not being said that speaks with the strongest emotion.  Again, it is the man’s silence that says the most about the painting.

The painting’s style also greatly contributes to its message.  The colors in the painting show great contrast, like those used in gritty noir detective films.  The contrast directs one’s eyes where to look, directing the focus of the painting to the people in the diner, emphasizing the loneliness and desolation of the outside street.  Since initial glances at the painting are directed towards the bright diner, due to the human eye’s natural attraction to brighter colors, when one does look upon the street, it conjures a much stronger feel of emptiness. The street seems more empty and foreign, even ignored.  The textures featured in the painting are all very simple; surfaces are not detailed or complex.  This allows the viewer to see the painting for what is much more important—the painting’s true theme of loneliness.  Onlookers are not distracted by individual objects in the painting and are able to easily take in the entire painting, the interactions, or in this case the lack of interactions, by the work’s characters. This is key to the message of Nighthawks: the emptiness depicted by the painting would be lost if the surfaces and subjects in the painting were detailed, as the viewer would not be able to look past them.  The texture also helps to emphasize the monotony of the loneliness in everyday life.  Nothing in the painting changes: the counter is all the same red, the walls all the same white, even all of the bar stools are identical.  The painting’s style is also heavily realistic; the situations being portrayed in the painting are not unlike those people might see in their very own lives.  The people in the painting are not covered in fake smiles or surrounded by trees and flowers, as seen in many other works.  They represent real people doing real things in a normal, everyday setting.

The realism is what truly drives the work’s message home.  The characters in the painting are no stranger than the people one encounters in everyday life, but viewers typically do not analyze the emotions and faces of those people around them.  The everyday viewer is distracted by what one would think if he or she were caught staring at a complete stranger.  The painting’s characters cannot stare back, and this allows for the viewer to completely immerse themselves in the painting’s emotion.  Onlookers are free to analyze a situation they might have been in themselves without the distractions of everyday social norms.

Nighthawks is one of the most popular works of realist art today.  Its noir elements and realistic portrayal of loneliness in everyday life allow a very wide audience to connect with the situation represented in the painting and all emotions associated with it.  Everyone has experienced feelings of loneliness, and the painting allows for the viewer to analyze those situations and feelings.  The loneliness in Nighthawks is relatable to by anyone, young or old, black or white, man or woman, and it is unmistakable.

Published by Aaron Geiger

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