Nighthawks by Edward Hopper // The Story Behind the Painting // La Historia detrás del cuadro

Edward Hopper said that Nighthawks was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,” but the image, with its carefully constructed composition and lack of narrative, has a timeless quality that transcends its particular locale. One of the best-known images of 20th-century art, the painting depicts an all-night diner in which three customers, all lost in their own thoughts, have congregated. Fluorescent lights had just come into use in the early 1940s, and the all-night diner emits an eerie glow, like a beacon on the dark street corner. Hopper eliminated any reference to an entrance, and the viewer, drawn to the light, is shut out from the scene by a seamless wedge of glass. The four anonymous and uncommunicative night owls seem as separate and remote from the viewer as they are from one another.

“Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles ¾ across canvas—at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre [sic] door into kitchen right. Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back—at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark—Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street—at edge of stretch of top of window.”

Hopper chose to paint a scene located at a sharply-angled street-corner, rather than at one of New York’s many right-angled intersections. This choice was not unusual for Hopper, who painted a number of other scenes of this kind of corner (see Office at Night (1940)). A sharp corner gave him the opportunity to display his subjects from a nearly frontal point of view, and also allowed him to display the dimly visible street scene behind the patrons. Hopper often painted scenes in which a part of the exterior view could be seen through two panes of glass. But the shape of the diner in Nighthawks, when seen from Hopper’s chosen angle (which is also the point of view of a passer-by walking past on the sidewalk), allows this second glass surface to fill the entire centre of the painting. The further pane of glass forms a rhomboid, close to the center of the painting and recalling, with slight distortion, the shape of the entire canvas, and framing much of the action.

The back window serves as a background for all three customers, but not for the server. Its variance from the shape of the painting as a whole also hides a curious symmetry that would otherwise be obvious: The head of the customer who is sitting alone is at the precise center of the frame-within-a-frame (which is also the exact center of the painting as a whole). Although they sit around a bend in the counter, the heads of the couple are directly to his right, so that a horizontal line, drawn precisely halfway between the top and the bottom of the canvas, would bisect all three heads. The entire human element in the painting is therefore contained within the lower right-hand quarter of the canvas.

As Jo Hopper’s journal entry notes, the brightest spot in the painting is the “bit of bright ceiling” close to the hidden fluorescent light that illuminates the interior. The ceiling is obviously of limited relevance to any narrative that might be unfolding among the customers below; this is Hopper’s realism at work.

Outside the diner, dull colors predominate, as might be expected at night. Inside, the counter-top and the men’s suits are also dull. The two brightly-colored spots in the entire interior are the white outfit worn by the server and the female customer’s red blouse. Indeed, her red blouse and lipstick represent the only use of red in the entire composition, causing her to stand apart from everything else in the painting.

However, Nighthawks was probably Hopper’s most ambitious essay in capturing the night-time effects of manmade light. For one thing, the diner’s plate-glass windows cause far more light to spill out onto the sidewalk and the brownstones on the far side of the street than is true in any of his other paintings. As well, this interior light comes from more than a single lightbulb, with the result that multiple shadows are cast, and some spots are brighter than others as a consequence of being lit from more than one angle. Across the street, the line of shadow caused by the upper edge of the diner window is clearly visible towards the top of the painting. These windows, and the ones below them as well, are partly lit by an unseen streetlight, which projects its own mix of light and shadow. As a final note, the bright interior light causes some of the surfaces within the diner to be reflective. This is clearest in the case of the right-hand edge of the rear window, which reflects a vertical yellow band of interior wall, but fainter reflections can also be made out, in the counter-top, of three of the diner’s occupants. None of these reflections would be visible in daylight.

Hopper’s biographer, Gail Levin, speculates that Hopper may have been inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s Café at Night, which was showing at a gallery in New York in January 1942. The similarity in lighting and themes makes this possible; it is certainly very unlikely that Hopper would have failed to see the exhibition, and as Levin notes, the painting had twice been exhibited in the company of Hopper’s own works. Beyond this, there is no evidence that Café at Night exercised an influence on Nighthawks. Although there is no evidence at all (other than the fact that Hopper admired the story), Levin also suggests that he may have been inspired by Ernest Hemingway‘s 1927 short story, The Killers.

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En diciembre de 1941, justo tras la debacle de Pearl Harbor, Edward Hopper cruzó una noche, de camino a su estudio, frente a un diner solitario de Greenwich Avenue. A la mañana siguiente comenzaba a pintar Nighthawks, su cuadro más famoso. El pintor y su esposa, cuya relación no era precisamente idílica, están en el cuadro, en esa pecera de aves nocturnas y solitarias: Josephine Hopper es el modelo de la mujer de rojo y Edward es el hombre del sombrero que está a su lado. Nighthawks es mucho más que un tranche de vie: es un condensado de melancolía insomne, quintaesencia (según el crítico Gordon Theisen) del “lado oscuro del sueño americano”. Es un espejo secreto y, como toda verdadera obra de arte, una ventana abierta en abismo a cientos de ventanas paralelas.

Sus reverberaciones son infinitas: la primera vez que vi el cuadro pensé, casi instantáneamente, en un relato, una película, un disco. Pensé en los parroquianos, a la busca de unas briznas de calma y afecto, de un lugar limpio y bien iluminado, de Hemingway; pensé en el amor imposible de Dana Andrews y Gene Tierney en la noche eterna de Where the sidewalk ends y, por supuesto, pensé en Nighthawks at the diner, la presentación en sociedad de Tom Waits, el perfecto cantor de Hopperlandia.

Más tarde, en 1981, el cuadro cobró vida, literalmente, en Pennies from heaven, la adaptación que hizo Herbert Ross de la negrísima serie televisiva del gran Dennis Potter: Steve Martin y Bernadette Peters ocupaban en el plano los mismos lugares que el hombre del sombrero y la mujer de rojo, bañados por la misma luz, con esos colores (verde de mesa de billar, escarlata agónico, falsa vainilla) que sin duda existieron en el Nueva York de 1941 pero ahora parecen refulgir únicamente en la dimensión desconocida del relato, del cine negro, de una voz que sobrevuela botellas vacías y ceniceros llenos. Faltaba, cómo no, el teatro. Se estrena en el Kirk Douglas Theatre de Los Ángeles una nueva zambullida en el cuadro: el debutante Douglas Steinberg ha imaginado cuatro identidades posibles para los personajes de Nighthawks. La pelirroja se llama Mae; fue corista de Ziegfeld y ahora es la dueña del diner. Su marido es el camarero, se llama Quig y acaba de volver de ultramar. El hombre del sombrero se llama Sam y es un parroquiano habitual. Los tres tratarán de desentrañar la identidad del hombre solitario que permanece de espaldas a la calle, un silencioso desconocido que bien podría ser el mismísimo Edward Hopper.

“Probablemente de forma inconsciente, estaba pintando la soledad de una gran ciudad”, dijo el propio Hopper de esta obra. Efectivamente, “Nighthawks” no es sólo la obra más famosa y reproducida del artista, sino que se ha convertido, por derecho propio, en el símbolo de la soledad de la metrópolis contemporánea y en uno de los iconos del Arte del siglo XX.

De esta pintura se han hecho multitud de interpretaciones y consideraciones subjetivas, demostrando así la terrible emoción que ésta provoca en el observador. La visión de estas cuatro figuras anónimas (misteriosamente, Hopper llamó a esta obra una pintura “de tres personajes”) en el interior de un sobre iluminado bar en la noche de una oscura jungla de asfalto consigue producir una sensación de soledad inevitable. A destacar que, al no representar la puerta de acceso al local, Hopper ha convertido el establecimiento en una prisión de vidrio en la que nadie puede entrar –ni salir.

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