There is usually something comforting about spotting lights in darkness. Warmth, activity, security – the comforting haze of lights normally signifies all of these. As we, the viewer, gaze upon the café scene from the desolute corner of Greenwich Avenue (NY), the lights of the café intice us in. However, as we are drawn closer, it becomes clear that this café setting is not a place of refuge, and neither warmth, nor activity, nor security are alive here. In the iconic ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper, we are simultaneously inticed and repelled.
Hopper generates this repulsion from his viewer in a number of ways. Most obviously, he does so through his statuesque ‘nighthawks’ – the three subjects sitting around the bar. Each in their own way, the subjects are threatening; the woman’s glaringly bright red dress and hair (the colour of desire, but also of fear), the ambiguous man with his back turned against us, and finally the man with the aquiline face, literally like the face of a hawk. Each subject is perched at the bar, but perched with a stillness that compounds the threat that they collectively pose. Notice how the three figures encase the café worker (the man in white) who is literally bent over. Notice how the man and the woman, despite their body language suggesting they are a couple, are entirely aloof to each other’s presence. Notice how even if you wanted to go into the café, you couldn’t – Hopper does not paint door. In such a scene, the flourescent lighting of the café becomes eerie and alienating, rather than warm and secure.
Ultimately therefore, what repulses us from this scene is the alienation and lonliness that each figure in ‘Nighthawks’ seems to possess. There is no humanity, no activity in the café, only figures lost to their own thoughts; thoughts that they are clearly unable to share with each other. This action (or lack thereof) perfectly suits the café’s surroundings; the street is barren, all we can see is empty shop windows. The irony should now be obvious – in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, indeed, the ‘city that never sleeps,’ Edward Hopper depicts a scene of absolute lonliness. As Hopper himself said, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the lonliness of a large city.”
From music and film to The Simpsons, ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper has been reproduced countless times. It’s endurance and people’s attraction to it, I believe, lies in it’s honesty as a realist work of art – there are no allusions here, and no distractions, simply an honest reflection of the lonliness that so many people can feel in the modern day, in a world where despite the advancements that are made, the basic pleasures of men and women are not necessarily fulfilled. Hopper’s painting provides no answers to this dilemma, but, significantly, highlights it’s persistence.