Nighthawks is a 1942 oil on canvas painting by Edward Hopper that portrays people in a downtown diner late at night.
It is Hopper’s most famous work, and is one of the most recognizable paintings in American art. Within months of its completion, it was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago on May 13, 1942 for $3,000 and has remained there ever since.
Facts About Painting
HOPPER’S WIFE WAS ITS FIRST ART HISTORIAN.
Josephine Hopper (née Nivison) oversaw a shared journal, where she and her husband took notes on his paintings. This is how we know the precise date of Nighthawks‘ completion (January 21, 1942), and various other details, like that the painting was originally titled Night Hawks.
NIGHTHAWKS WAS AN INSTANT CLASSIC.
When Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, first laid eyes on the painting a few short months after Hopper put on the final touches, he declared it was as “fine as Homer”—referencing the 19th century American landscape painter.
Rich was quick to purchase Nighthawks for the Art Institute for $3000 ($43,200.37 adjusting for inflation). The Hopper classic is still on display in the Institute’s galleries.
IT’S BIGGER THAN YOU MIGHT EXPECT.
A quiet scene that could be the beginning or end of a million different stories, Nighthawks seems like it might be a small painting like the Mona Lisa. But in fact, it measures 33 1/8 inches by 60 inches, roughly 2.75 feet by 5 feet.
BOTH EDWARD AND JOSEPHINE HOPPER WERE MODELS FOR NIGHTHAWKS.
In a letter to his sister Marion, Josephine shared, “Ed has just finished a very fine picture—a lunch counter at night with 3 figures. Night Hawks would be a fine name for it. E. posed for the two men in a mirror and I for the girl. He was about a month and half working on it.”
THE TITLE NIGHTHAWKS MAY HAVE BEEN A NOD TO ONE OF THE DINER’S PATRONS.
In Josephine’s notes, she wrote a description of one of the customers: “Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette.” This note suggests that the prominent nose of this patron makes the painting’s title a bit more literal.
A POPULAR READING OF THE PIECE FOCUSES ON “WARTIME ISOLATION.”
Its characters are separated from the outside world by the light and windows Hopper carefully rendered. There’s no door shown that would allow the viewer conceivable entrance into this lonely nighttime world. And even in their shared space, the characters are close without touching. Painted right after the American entry into World War II, Nighthawks can be seen as an illustration of the chilling effects of that world-changing conflict.
BUT FOR HOPPER, IT WAS ABOUT FEELING ALONE IN A CROWD.
Many of the artist’s works reflected the isolation that could be felt amid the bustle of New York City. Of Nighthawks, the New York native said, “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”
HOPPER CLAIMED THE NIGHTHAWKS DINER WAS BASED ON A REAL PLACE.
He was cagey about naming the actual eatery, though. His only clue: “[Nighthawks] was suggested by a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.”
THE ACTUAL LOCATION OF THIS INSPIRATION IS A MATTER OF DEBATE.
Popular opinion favors Mulry Square, a small triangular lot at Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue. However, historical records show that a gas station occupied the lot in the early 1940s, not a diner.
In 2014, a restaurant on Greenwich Street declared itself Nighthawks’ inspiration after a Chicago native wandered in and noted the similarities between the place’s layout and the famous painting. This is how Classic’s Café at 679 Greenwich Street came to change its name to Nighthawks.