Edward Hopper – Nighthawks

This is a painting by Edward Hopper that was painted in 1942. Which means that it was painted during the Great Depression in America, which I think contributes to the atmosphere and pallet of this piece. I chose to research this painting as I find that the composition and atmosphere of this painting is captivating and intriguing, and I want to explore why.

Everything in this painting is symbolic and metaphorical, even the title has hidden meaning. The cafe in the painting isn’t called Nighthawks, but in fact is describing the behaviour people in it. Since, a nighthawk is a nocturnal bird, but is most lively during the late evening. This use of metaphor and symbolism links to my poetry. 

The composition of this painting is of a lonely man seated in the centre of the painting. His clothes and the colours used for him are similar to another man in the background. They are wearing the same hat and jacket, and it looks like they are drinking from identical cups. This suggests a number of things. That the group of people in the background is a projection of his desires. Or that the man in the background feels isolated and feels like the man in the centre of the painting, and that man is just a projection of his dissociation from himself. Or that the man in the centre is just jealous of the group and wishes he was apart of that. The man in the background looks bored and unhappy, and the girl looks uninterested in him, suggesting a story of a bad relationship. Which makes all of those scenarios previously mentioned, plausible.

There is no door into the cafe, that could indicate that the cafe is larger or that this is an allegory of people in America at that time, or that it could be a metaphor of the lonely man feeling like he’s in a ‘fish bowl’ and he can’t escape. This ‘fish bowl’ effect links to our present day technology and privacy issues. This is a topic that Foucault has explored in depth with the research into the Panopticon. 

The gap between the man and the group creates tension, a feeling of loneliness and an emotional atmosphere. All of the people in the cafe have gaunt facial features implying that they are lacking something, are sad or they are going through a difficult time. Which links to the context behind the painting, as mentioned before, this is a painting from the Great Depression in America. So the gaunt, hollow features do link to the hardship of the times. The colours used in this painting are mainly muted, dark and moody, receding blues, greens and dark reds being the majority. This creates an oppressive and depressive atmosphere. However the colour of the walls on the inside of the cafe are bright yellow which highlights this section of the painting. The yellow could be seen as a warm, joyful, hopeful colour which contradicts the stormy atmosphere. However, I view that yellow as sickly, as it has a putrid, pale green hue.

The waiter is the only one who seems occupied and talking to the group. This is a snapshot piece of art that captures a moment in a similar way to a photograph, giving this piece a voyeuristic feeling. This is also emphasised by composition of this piece as the left third of this piece displays the rest of the street, implying that the viewer is walking down the street and peering in through the window at the people inside.

The materials used to create this piece was oil on canvas. This gives the painting a matt, flat texture, and makes the tone easier to gradate. This piece is slightly stylised as all of the colours are slightly oversaturated, making the painting look like it’s glowing through the night. 

I want this piece to influence my work as it fascinates me no end and I could spend the rest of my life debating all of the meanings behind this piece. I would love to produce work which is as intriguing to the viewer as this piece is to me. Hopefully, through the use of poetry I can add another level of meaning to my work in a similar way to War Primer 2.

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