If you were to list the iconic works of American visual art, Edward Hopper's (1882-1967) "Nighthawks," with its unforgettable glimpse into the clear panes of a brightly lit all-night West Village diner, would most certainly have to be included. "Nighthawks" (1942) is in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, which describes its history and backstory like this:
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, universal quality that transcends its particular locale. One of the best-known images of twentieth-century art, the painting depicts an all-night diner in which three customers, all lost in their own thoughts, have congregated. Hopper’s understanding of the expressive possibilities of light playing on simplified shapes gives the painting its beauty. 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. (The red-haired woman was actually modeled by the artist’s wife, Jo.) Hopper denied that he purposefully infused this or any other of his paintings with symbols of human isolation and urban emptiness, but he acknowledged that in Nighthawks “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”Jeremiah Moss, who started the Jeremiah's Vanishing New York blog, chronicling hyper-gentrification's dramatic transformation of New York City over the last two decades, and who last year published a companion volume, Vanishing New York: Now a Great City Lost Its Soul, devoted several posts back in summer 2010 and again in 2013 to figuring out which buildings in Manhattan might have served as a model for "Nighthawks." He concluded that there was no diner, and that Hopper had drawn more upon his imagination than anything else.
I have to say, though, that although there may have been on strict model at the spot or spots Hopper stated, or where Moss conjectured the diner might have stood, I can attest to having walked past similar spots, late at night in the late 1980s and especially in the late 1990s, on my way back from NYU, and unconsciously picturing an analogue to Hopper's scene. It captures a fundamental truth, transformed into a memorable image (would we call it a meme today?), about US urban life, especially during the mid-20th century, the isolation amidst connection, in a commercial space, outside the constraints of conventional normative time.
In the painting the figures are all white and could be viewed as a quasi-community or family, though all appear to be operating in semi-separate spheres of existence; but they aren't a heteronormative nuclear family, they aren't sitting down to dinner with kids, and three of them, at least at first glance, are not at work. Or are they? (The man behind the counter is.) There is a timelessness (outside of daily time) to the painting's image, a feeling almost outside of time, and, speaking of feeling, a tone of loneliness, perhaps even sadness, hovering over everything. And yet the diner's bright lights suggest a harbor amid the surrounding darkness.
Poet, European Classics scholar, artist, and performer Anne Carson might not be the first person who comes mind to be writing a poem about "Nighthawks," since he focus so often are stories drawn from the European Classical storehouse, but she included the one below in her collection Men in the Off Hours, whose title seems also to gesture towards Hopper's painting. There is a sense of "off hours" being depicted, not just in the painting but in the poem. Carson's poem is operating on multiple levels, with paralleling throughout, from the stanzas' ladderlike appearance to the mirroring of the end words, or teleutons, with rhyming when the words are not exact. "Shadows" and "widows" connect figuratively as well.
Carson has created a story about at least two of the figures, the flame-haired woman and the man sitting beside her, and the brief poem shares this narrative. One could imagine others, but Carson emphasizes it with her repetition of the lines, suggesting a passion that has taken the participants out of time--"off hours"--providing a foundation for this reading this by breaking through the poem's chief voice with the disorienting quote from St. Augustine's Confessions. "Time...were not" as the lovers have run away and figured out what their relationship meant, yet the distances have found them--this (homeo)stasis preserved, for all time now, in Hopper's painting and in Carson's poem.
by Anne Carson
I wanted to run away with you tonight
but you are a difficult woman the rules of you— Past and future circle round us now we know more now less in the institute of shadows. On the street black as widows with nothing to confess our distances found us the rules of you— so difficult a woman I wanted to run away with you tonight. Yet I say boldly that I know that if nothing passed away, time past were not. And if nothing were coming, time future were not. And if nothing were, time present were not. (Augustine, Confessions XI)
Anne Carson, from Men in the Off Hours, New York: Vintage Contemporary Poetry, 2001. All rights reserved.
Edward Hopper, "Nighthawks," 1942, oil on canvas 84.1 x 152.4 cm (33 1/8 x 60 in.) signed l.r. "Edward Hopper" Friends of American Art Collection, 1942.51, Art Institute of Chicago