Tuesday, March 11, 2008

American Night Owls: Loneliness in Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks"

Paper Abstract:

This paper was written for a film class called Visual Analysis, but the assignment was to look outside of the world of cinema and select a work of art that could be viewed in person in order to analyze its aesthetic and thematic elements. Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 American painting entitled Nighthawks is housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, and the technique, message, and social-historical context of the work are analyzed in this paper. Painted right after the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nighthawks captures the loneliness, desperation, isolation, and hopelessness that Americans were feeling at the time. It definitely depicts the darker side of the war experience on the home front. This painting of a diner at night is especially intriguing because it looks like it could be a still out of a movie. It is very film noir in appearance and spirit, and this makes sense since that cinematic movement was just underway. While Norman Rockwell presented people with idealistic, hopeful images of Americana, Edward Hopper refused to ignore the stark reality gripping the United States, which is actually quite refreshing.

Paper Excerpts:

Since the use of color can convey a mood, it is not surprising that Hopper used muted hues in Nighthawks to convey despair. But even though the colors seem heavy, Hopper used them strategically to create remarkable contrasts. The street looks very gray and cold, which makes the fluorescent yellow of the diner even more striking. The woman’s red dress pops against all the darkness. The painting looks almost neon, like the figures are washed out under all that electricity. Hopper expertly manipulated tonalities to haunting effect. Nighthawks could be a frame out of a film noir, a genre that emerged right around this time. Light and dark areas alternate dramatically, and shadows abound. Warm light from the diner bathes the street outside, and one can practically hear the hum of the street lights. The whole painting glows with an unsettling greenish-blue glow, punctuated by the blazing yellow inside the diner. Both the colors and tonalities emphasize the cold, unfriendly mood.

While artists like Norman Rockwell produced idealistic, utopian works that wildly differed from the harsh reality of the war years, Edward Hopper refused to ignore the pain gripping the country. Nighthawks definitively reflects its social and historical context by commenting on modern alienation. In spite of being right next to each other, all four figures are totally alone. They are the victims of a cruel, cold, apathetic world, dejected and resigned to hopelessness. Similarly, the city outside of the diner is totally empty, offering the people inside no comfort whatsoever, a true indictment of urban growth and detachment. The world has forgotten them, and they have lost themselves. These people appear to be trapped inside of their glass coffin, with no door to the outside visible to the viewer. There is no solace, and everyone must suffer alone. It is a bleak, honest, and uncompromising view of the world in the midst of a devastating war.

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