The hour is late. The streets are deserted. In a downtown diner two men and a woman pass the time over coffee. No-one speaks. No-one makes eye contact. Even the pair seated close enough to touch maintain a sense of separation, he nursing a cigarette while she contemplates something held in her fingers. Like a scene from film noir, the men wear the suits and fedoras of the gangster or the hard-boiled private eye, the woman the red of the femme fatale. But there is no glamour here. The server goes about his work apparently ignored by his customers. The faces are tired, worn. Shoulders slump, slouching over the counter. The ‘nighthawks’ are closed off not only from one another but from the outside world: the door to the diner falls outside the frame of the picture.
This is American artist Edward Hopper’s (1882-1967) best-known painting. His realism makes him unusual in a period during which many artists were shifting towards increasingly abstract and symbolic forms: the diner was supposedly inspired by, and bears a strong resemblance to, one which stood on a corner in Hopper’s Greenwhich, New York, neighbourhood at the time, and there is nothing abstract about the scene. Even the name has an element of realism to it: the nighthawk is a species of nightjar, a bird which hunts at night.
‘Nighthawks’ is painted in oil on canvas and measures 84cm by 151cm. It is held at the Art Institute of Chicago, in Chicago, USA.
One of the things I love about this painting is the sense of narrative, of a moment of temporary inaction frozen in time. What has happened, and what will happen next, are left up to the imagination.
What happened? What will happen next? Tell me a story…