In this series, I’ve explored some of the paintings currently on display in the Art Institute’s “Art & Appetite: ” exhibit. You can find previous columns here.

And so we come to Nighthawks.

Along with American Gothic, Chagall’s America windows, Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte and Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, Edward Hopper’s iconic painting of four individuals in an otherwise empty late-night diner is one of the highlights of the Art Institute’s permanent collection. It’s included in the penultimate room in the “Art & Appetite” exhibit, after the Impressionists and before the Contemporary. The room has other paintings from between the wars, and they range in style from Hopper’s stylized realism to rougher, almost childish figures. This has always been my favorite period in Western art, before deconstruction of form gave way to cynical “style over substance” of the latter 20th century.

The nameless diner in Nighthawks is lit up like an aquarium in otherwise darkened streets. Hopper was a deft hand at creating moody, atmospheric paintings that were draped in shadows, and Nighthawks was created just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a time when rolling blackouts in New York City would have been the norm. More than the darkness of the streets, it’s the emptiness that’s striking. I’ve stumbled my way home in the wee hours of morning before, and while it’s quiet, it’s unusual not to meet another late-night reveler, third-shift worker or cabbie on the streets. To see streets that are empty of any life is strange and evokes an unsettling loneliness. No wonder these disparate strangers have gathered into the one beacon of light in the dark city: the promise of hot coffee, maybe a sandwich and company.


But what kind of company do we have? The server, though facing away from the viewer, looks like he could have been a soda jerk in one of Norman Rockwell’s paintings before his fall from grace, abandoning God and the American Way when he agreed to pick up the night shift. The couple facing us undoubtedly arrived together. Their hands are nearly touching, and their bodies are angled towards each other. But will they leave together? The woman is more interested in the last bite of whatever she’s eating, while the man’s attention is on the server, whatever conversation they may be having. As for the man with his back to us, he’s a complete enigma, wide-shouldered and alone. Maybe he’s just a bystander, or maybe he’s the source of tension in the room.

Because there is tension in the room, that’s for sure. Despite the possibility for camaraderie, there is instead of frisson of suspense. It’s late, it’s dark, and these four may be the only living souls for miles. Anything at all could happen.

Nighthawks has captivated viewers for over half a century. It’s been recreated in films, comics and television shows. In a century that’s been marked by ever-growing urban populations, Nighthawks has come to symbolize all the sins of post-modern life. As Hopper himself remarked, “Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

Nighthawks‘ inclusion in Art & Appetite seems a little strange at first. Aside from the coffee urns and the white mugs, there’s no actual food in evidence. (We’re not sure what exactly the woman has in her hand, and her look of consideration makes us wonder if she’s actually going to put it in her mouth.) I wondered, at first, if the Art Institute included it for the sake of form. Then, of course, I realized that while there’s no food in evidence, the diner itself is a perfect emblem of American food in the early 20th century.

Diners evolved from proto food trucks in the late 19th century in Providence, Rhode Island, and quickly spread, with enterprising men in wooden wagons roving towns after-hours, looking for hungry workers. By the 1920’s, diners were just as likely to be boxy pre-fabricated models delivered by railway. The rise of the automobile and American industry correlated with the golden age of diners. In his critical work Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper’s NIGHTHAWKS and the Dark Side of the American Psyche, Gordon Thiesen wrote,

Adjunct to hotels, motels, boardinghouses, bus and train stations, early and late newspaper editions, snappy lunch breaks and dinners on the run, diners were part of a powerful and productive and energetic society always working, always on the move, night and day… Diners served people who were passing through without making firm connections, people not tied down to any one location, any one neighborhood, any one job, to a regular evening meal with the family, but who might wish they were tied down, more stable, connected.

As an institution of American eating, diners exhibit the dichotomous desires of eating out: anonymity and personality. Diners have both diversified and franchised: Denny’s and Waffle Haus and IHOP proliferate along the interstate system, while any college town worth its salt has three or four diners, inspiring loyalty among their clientele. And yet the menus are all practically the same: waffles/pancakes/french toast, eggs, sandwiches and bottomless mugs of coffee, with some wiggle room for regional fare or individual specialities. Diners occupy a special place in the American Psyche. I’ve been dumped in diners, nursed hangovers, written screenplays, sobered up, finished homework assignments; they’re a liminal place, full of possibility for good or ill.

Nighthawks exemplifies this spirit, the comfort and danger of a lit-up beacon in an otherwise shadowy landscape. We’re not sure what’s happening in the painting, only that anything could happen. The woman could throw her scrap of sandwich down and leave. The man with her could put his cigarette out in her coffee. The server could quit. The man with his back to us could pull out a gun and rob everyone. Nothing would surprise us, not even if all the customers calmly finished their meals, paid and left without incident, leaving the server to wait alone for the sun to rise.

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