Hopper’s Nighthawks in the City that Never Sleeps

The Greenwich street painting and its post-war origins.

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While the absence of narrative in Nighthawks (1942) grants the painting a universality that could depict the late-night loneliness of any diner anywhere, the iconic image by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) portrays an eatery on the West Village’s Greenwich Street a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Garish fluorescent lighting (a modern wonder that had become commercially viable only a decade before) and urns of endless coffee (the only sustenance visible) allow patrons to override their natural circadian rhythms, to 86 the human cycle of sleep for the breakfast-all-hours high-noon glow of a greasy spoon. Nighthawks is a portrait of the city that never sleeps, but Hopper shows us boredom instead of bustle, alienation in place of celebration. This bright would-be beacon, a lighthouse for ships in the night, proves as desolate as the dark city street, offering neither comestibles nor camaraderie. Behind doorless plate glass, the employee seems imprisoned within the counters while his patrons hunch in silence over heaping portions of existential ennui.

These diners—like the rest of us—are free to stay up past bedtime in pursuit of the night’s unearthly delights. And with 20,000 restaurants to choose from, there are plenty of options for those who crave caffeine at 3 a.m. But if it’s companionship you hunger for, take Hopper’s warning: modern urban life is dark and bright lights don’t necessarily help.

Image: Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. 

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Kevin Kilroy writes for the cultural events calendar NYC-ARTS.org, sells Flying Pigs Farm pork at the Greenmarket and has taught a high school–level course at the Museum of the City of New York on popular music and American history.