One of the most recognized works in American art is Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting, Nighthawks.
Nighthawks features people sitting in a downtown diner late at night. The oil on canvas original measures 33-1/8″ x 60″. It is Hopper’s most famous work and within months of completion the Art Institute of Chicago bought it for $3,000.
There’s debate over how the painting was titled. Hopper and his wife, Josephine (Jo), kept journals of sketches and detailed descriptions of paintings. The original title of the piece was “Night Hawks”. “Night hawk” is akin to “night owl”, which is used to describe someone who stays up late. “Nighthawks” is also a name for a real family of birds. Some say, however, that Jo Hopper’s description of the painting indicates the title might have been inspired by the beak-like nose of the man sitting next to the brunette woman.
There’s also debate over the location of the diner in the painting. Hopper had said the painting “was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet” and that he “simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger”. Several Hopper aficionados have tried finding the exact location of the original diner. Many believe it was positioned near Mulry Square, while others believe it never truly existed, but, as Hopper said, was merely “suggested” by an establishment.
Many adaptations and parodies of Nighthawks have been produced. The most recognizable reproduction – which is oft-confused as an original concept – is Gottfried Helnwein’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, which replaces the three patrons with Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, and the attendant with Elvis Presley. Though produced in 1984, Helnwein’s painting “feels” as if it was painted during the actual time it references (the 1950s).
Hopper’s work also influenced music, literature and film. Director Ridley Scott credits the “future noir” look of the movie Blade Runner to Nighthawks. “I was constantly waving a reproduction of this painting under the noses of the production team to illustrate the look and mood I was after,” the director said.
Versions of Nighthawks have been used on posters, apparel, greeting cards, ads, and other items. Most of these parodies retain the original composition, but replace patrons and the attendant with other characters. An online search will return hundreds of parodies featuring the likes of Santa and his reindeer, Lego men, Star Wars characters, Peeps, Anime characters, and even Homer Simpson. The painting’s concept remains popular, and production of T-shirts, greeting cards, posters and other items remains consistent.
But nothing will change history – that it was Edward Hopper who created the piece that would be often parodied and modernized, sometimes even over-used as a basis for alternative works. No matter whom (or what) is sitting at the counter.