Playing with the Nighthawks

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.


Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, Art Institute of Chicago

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.

Nighthawks detail

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!

Lego Nighthawks

Sesame Street Nighthawks

Simpsons Nighthawks

50s Celebrity Nighthawks

Space Nighthawks


8 thoughts on “Playing with the Nighthawks

  1. I call Edward Hopper the painter of American Loneliness (I even have a blog post by that name about his show at the Whitney last year) I love his paintings and can’t look away but instead of comfort they leave me with a feeling of dejavu… probably due to my own experiences.

    I totally agree with you, once a work of art is out there, it takes on a new life …other (or more) than what the artist intended or the critics interpreted… we each make it our own.
    And you finding this painting exotic and romantic… what a refreshing point of view!

    No matter how we interpret it, his work is always so captivating.

    • Thanks, Sedef! Will definitely take a look at your post. So interesting to me that we both love him but in such different ways and for such different reasons, it sounds like. Captivating is the perfect word!

  2. Love that painting. Beautiful post — and I agree, there are many layers of meaning in it. Hopper is about loneliness, but not only about loneliness.

  3. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but definitely you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already 😉 Cheers!

    • Thank you so much! I’m definitely not a famous blogger — just plugging away — really appreciate your comment!

  4. Karen,

    Glad I came across this (via Andy Adams) and always good to hear different interpretations. i, like you, think of it as exotic. When I first saw this as a 18 year old Englishman, it reeked of romanticism to me; the idea that you could sit down on a bar stool, enjoy a drink and as you say – communicate without actually communicating.
    I always like to think that the man and women do not know each other, but by their choice to sit alongside each other with so many empty seats, and the way her shoulders are turned, they have found some sort of companionship.

    Anyway, really enjoyed the post


    • Thanks, Matt — It’s really interesting to me that others see it as I did. I love what you said about the man and woman sitting next to each other when there are so many empty seats. Good point! I’ve also been thinking about the importance of seeing art that you don’t know anything about. I LOVE to learn more, but sometimes my first impression is completely different from the artist’s intention and/or the critics’ interpretations, as in the case of Nighthawks. At this point in my life, I get so wrapped up in the knowing that I sometimes forget that I can interpret a piece of art however I want to without knowing anything about it. Liberating!
      Thanks again!

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