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Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Surrealism, and the War

The well-known painting “Nighthawks” was produced in 1942 by American artist Edward Hopper. It shows a late-night scene at a diner in downtown. The restaurant’s interior lighting illuminates the deserted streets outside with a cosy glow. Three patrons can be seen inside the restaurant: a server behind the counter, a couple dining together, and a man sitting alone at the counter. The scene is frequently seen as one of urban loneliness and isolation since there is little interaction between the humans and the stark lighting. Widely considered one of Hopper’s best, the picture symbolises urban life in the United States. 

Edward Hoppe

American realist painter Edward Hopper (1882–1967) was well-known for his enduring portraits of everyday life in the country. His paintings frequently depict lone individuals in ordinary situations and urban and rural landscapes. Hopper’s use of light and shadow to create mood and atmosphere makes his paintings distinctive. A sense of alienation, introspection, and loneliness are frequently expressed in them.   

Nighthawks in the Age of Anxiety

The Nighthawks were painted in Manhattan in 1942 by American painter Edward Hopper (1882–1967), close to Washington Square. This picture, which Gordon Heisen named his study, became a famous representation of American life and the “psyche” after being shown at the Art Institute in Chicago. Even with its renown, Nighthawks remains a restricted world. The door is starting to open for a deeper analysis of the issues with this painting in front of historians, critics, and art scholars. The English poet Wystan Hugh Auden (1907–1973) started writing his lengthy poem The Age of Anxiety while living in exile in America two years after Nighthawks was displayed. It is a capstone to his time in the United States and its fictitious ending. A Random House Book of New York published the poem for the first time in 1947, and Auden won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.   

When reading this poem, one might ask themselves the same questions as the interpreter when analysing Hopper’s picture of Nighthawks. It depicts a quartet of people ensconced in an American cafe, enclosing the diverse world of humans as individuals and entities existing as a single entity in the surroundings. In Auden’s poem Age of Dread, four people meet amid the war in an American pub on All Souls night. Amidst an environment of fear, they build a world of poetic imagery of a unique universe. May this be a coincidence, or may the two artists’ similarity in theme, period, and place be the driving forces behind their creativity?  

Edward Hopper

‘Hopper’s painting and Auden’s poem may share this ‘cultural experience’, as their visual-verbal similarity suggests. It is, therefore, suitable, alongside the research into relationships between the painting and the poem, to expand the ‘interpretation network’ in some way, especially by the artistic and historical connotations with Hopper’s painting, just as it is necessary to create a framework of theoretical questions, which the painting may bring up in Comparison with the Age of Anxiety. Therefore, The Comparison must not be restricted merely to the image-text relationship but must contain an artistic-theoretical connection in its contexts. Mitchell also draws attention to this need for further relationships in the Comparison of artworks: ‘Comparison itself is not necessary to study image-text relations. The essential subject matter is the whole ensemble of relations between media, and relations can be many other things besides similarity, resemblance, and analogy, writes Tomas Murar.  

According to Tomas Murar, Hopper thus became an artist ranking alongside Wood, Benton and other representatives of purely ‘American’ art. However, I suspect that his art was constructed differently from the works of the regionalists. As Hopper said in 1964: ‘What makes me so mad is the “American Scene” business. I never tried to do the American Scene as Benton, Curry, and the midwestern painters did. I think the American Scene painters caricatured America. I always wanted to do it myself. The French painters didn’t talk about the “French Scene”, or the English painters about the “English Scene”’. It always gets a rise out of me. The American quality is in a painter. He doesn’t have to strive for it.’

Even though Hopper’s Diner is a public place, anyone walking by might pretend to be a guest because the location is off-limits to outsiders due to its lack of entrance. This is evident in the painting itself. Even though there is a door behind the waiter next to the coffee makers, it is blocked by the continuous wooden counter. In his picture, the observer assumes the roles of a voyeur and a random bystander. The spectator is conscious of a certain uneasiness in his observation, so while he follows the event with delight that he is invisible, he also experiences an odd want to turn away.  

‘Time and place in ‘daily-life’ reality are, at first sight, clearly defined by the framework of Hopper’s painting and Auden’s poem, offered to the viewer and the reader as the given criterion of both works of art. Auden introduces his poem with a verse from the Lutheran Chorale of the English priest and novelist Sabine Baring Gould (1834–1924) from 1865,76 to which he connects with his definition of the historical in its weakened state and collapse: ‘When the historical process breaks down and armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate when necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business’, writes Tomas Murar.

Surrealism and the War

In Edward Hopper’s case, Gail Levin tries to link him to European movements, Surrealism, in an essay on him. According to Levin, Surrealist art and Hopper’s work were not hard to see. More revealing than his painfully spare prose is an introspective self-caricature that Hopper produced around the time of the Surrealism show, representing an imaginary dream. In the time of the war, in 1930, tension arose in Europe, bringing many artists into America, which revolutionised the American art scene. 

‘Notably, Hopper would have seen the exhibitions of Joan Miro and Dali, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in November 1941. Since the beginning of the previous year, the Hoppers had become members of the Modern; Jo wrote in her diary that she and Edward had been invited to everything since the museum’s founding in 1929, and that ‘it’s high time we joined. Hopper would have found something to applaud in the essay by James Johnson Sweeney in the Miro exhibition catalogue, which quoted Miro on the Importance of subject matter. ‘Have you ever heard of greater nonsense than the aim of the abstractionist group? Writes Gail Levin. 

A renowned American art work, “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper captivates spectators with its mysterious story and evocative ambience. The artwork transcends the banal subject matter of a late-night café, encouraging reflection on loneliness, alienation, and the transient nature of human connection through its precise composition, stark lighting, and a tangible sense of urban isolation. Hopper’s use of shadow and light produces a stunning scene that strikes a chord with viewers and inspires many theories and interpretations. The fact that “Nighthawks” is now regarded as a classic piece of modern American art shows how talented Hopper was and how powerful visual storytelling can be.   

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