This is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, probably his most famous painting. Look at it for about 5 minutes and try to come up with three words to describe the mood it creates. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
I often hear the piece described as timeless, probably because we’re almost a century on and people still find resonance in it. The number and variety of Nighthawks parodies out there is an interesting example of the many ways it still resonates. Some of those efforts are serious attempts to situate the painting’s themes in later eras. Others are obviously just for fun. I’m thinking there of ones playing off of Star Wars, Sesame Street, The Simpsons, Star Trek, or The Breakfast Club. I love one I saw with James Dean sitting at the counter. There’s a Nighthawks Lego version, too. Among the more serious reboots is one that captures the diner as a Wi-Fi café and another that refashions it as a McDonald’s. One I saw recently has the diner closed and one of the 3 customers walking away from the darkened windows. That was done during the pandemic, I believe. It’s a really sparse composition but people are obviously drawn to it.
Personally, though, I like Nighthawks more when I think of it in its own time and place. Yes, I admit that I’d like to see fedoras make a comeback but that’s not what I’m getting at here. Hopper painted Nighthawks in 1942, right after the US entered the Second World War. It was nothing on par with London during the blitz, but Hopper’s New York City was transformed by the angst and fear of wartime. It was a transformation seemingly most pronounced at night. The city's efforts to reduce the threat of air raids included dimming or turning off all public lights and routine city-wide blackout drills. People retreated indoors and night life dried up. As Hopper regularly took nighttime walks in the city, the experience must have gotten more and more eerie or disquieting. Well during one of those gloomy night walks, he imagined what it would be like to round a corner and see a brightly lit diner with people carrying on inside. What a few months before was an ordinary sight was now something he strained to imagine. That was the genesis of Nighthawks. And it’s what I like to think about when I look at the warm glow of the diner flooding out onto the deserted street and the four figures on full display from within. I can’t join them because there is no door. They don’t look like they’re talking but I couldn’t hear them if they were. All I can hear, as one observer said, is the sound of my own feet on the sidewalk.