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Human Isolation In Nighthawks

Alize Cansever

(ARUCAD Faculty of Arts Year 2. Student)


Edward Hopper (1882-1967), considered himself to be an Impressionist painter, although he is mostly grouped with American Realist painters. He was known for his oil paintings, but also did printmaking, etching, and watercolor. He studied at the Parsons School of Design, and was very successful in the early 1930s, and had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933. He is said to have influenced the New Realism and Pop Art movements of the 60s and 70s. Hopper elevates his paintings by taking an ordinary scene and giving a different perspective, he used light, space, and angles very well, as well as contrasting and bright colors. A writer for the Smithsonian Magazine, Avis Berman, wrote an article about Edward Hopper in 2007, called “Hopper: The Supreme American Realist of the 20th-Century”. Avis Berman described Hopper’s work as “stark yet intimate interpretations of American life” and “minimal dramas suffused with maximum power”. His paintings have a certain honesty and bluntness to them. Although his paintings have a setting, a set of characters, and a certain activity taking place, he is a bit of an impressionist. It is easy to feel the emotion behind the paintings, they are not too complex, everything is in the open. From where the painting takes place, to the time and the people. His paintings are unromanticized and vulnerable, they feel real, which is why he was popular. There was no façade or lie, it is just the way he saw urban life to be.


This reflects in his painting, Nighthawks. Where we can feel a specific isolation feeling. There is a certain loneliness and coldness in the painting, which feels very familiar. Edward Hooper said that for the Nighthawks painting he was influenced by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet”.


However, the scene has been so carefully designed that you could say this diner still exists today, not only aesthetically but with its atmosphere too. It depicts four “nighthawks” in a diner. A couple, a lone man, and the cook. Although there are four people, they all feel isolated. The man sat on the left, slouched with a newspaper under his arm, the cook who is still working at this hour by himself. And the couple, who are sat next to each other, but it feels like they are worlds apart. Their shoulders almost touching, their bodies and faces not facing each other, strict and rigid postures, there is a lack of warmth, a lack of comfort in the interaction. This also reflects to the viewer of the painting, not just in the scene but in the angle we are viewing it from. We are unable to see the entrance to the diner, we can see the light but not the source, we see the street but not where it’s leading to. The painting feels almost like a display case for our four desolate nighthawks.

Photo: Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. 84 cm x 1.52 cm oil on canvas. School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Hopper denies that he knowingly followed an isolated theme, however, he does admit that “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” This painting reminds us once again that human isolation is timeless, no matter the year, place or circumstance, it is a sentiment everyone is familiar with. Edward Hopper allows to us feel emphasize with isolation and loneliness even if we are not initially feeling so. Even if this does sound slightly depressing, it’s actually a beautiful and freeing feeling. To know that you are not the first, or the last, to feel a certain way. Sometimes there is nothing wrong, but we still feel isolated in a crowd of people. Edward Hopper’s depictions of these situations brings a special solace.

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