Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is such a famous painting that every time I see it, I skip right over it. Today, though, on a rainy melancholy day, I stopped, to think and look.
The words isolation, remote, misery are always used to describe this painting, and with good reason. The light is harsh, and the figures don’t interact. This is 1942: Pearl Harbor has happened, the US has entered WWII. Times are not particularly good. Hopper had specific ideas in mind about the misery of the people inside the diner when he painted this — that they should be outside and free like birds, but instead they’re closed in, “dazed and miserable, with their heads constantly banging against the glass of the world’s callousness.”
But what we love about art is that once an artwork is out there in public, we are free to view it as we choose, to take what we know and who we are and interpret it in a way that works for us, right? So I’ve always seen Nighthawks quite differently. It looks to me like the barman is talking to or smiling at the man in the hat. Sure, they’re not exactly animated, but it is clearly the middle of the night. The man and woman are tired. The streets are deserted.
When I was younger and fell in love with Edward Hopper, this painting felt exotic to me. From the vantage point of the small town that I grew up in, being in a diner in the middle of the night in the big city was romantic and just a little bit rebellious. So that colors my view of this painting. The woman has always looked to me like she has a slight smile on her face. The man and the woman’s hands look like they’re touching or at least close. They don’t lean away from each other. They even look companionable to me. Check out this Nighthawks image from the Google Art Project for a closer look.
I just don’t get a strict sense of alienation from this painting, and on this rainy day when I’m in a bit of a funk, I actually take some solace from it. There are places where we can go in the middle of the night and be with other people. Even if we’re not actively communicating, people need people, and perhaps it’s reassuring to all of these people to just be in the same space together, while the night quietly ticks on outside. They’ve landed here like nighthawks, taking a break, sitting for a minute and having a cup of coffee, before they move on.
So what I’m trying to say here is don’t be intimidated by art. It can mean whatever you want it to mean. While there may be an accepted meaning and/or the artist’s intention is known, that shouldn’t stop you from seeing it differently. And while knowing more about a piece of art makes it more alive, I think, and deepens our knowledge of ourselves, our time, and history, you can still see an artwork differently than the experts do. Really, it’s ok. Click the links below for some different takes on Nighthawks!