Nighthawks (1942, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois) is considered to be Hopper's most iconic image. This masterpiece is exemplary of the artist's ability to capture the isolation and solitude of the residents of New York City. Looking through the window of a restaurant, the interior yellow light dramatically illuminates four occupants as the darkness of the street envelops the diner. With the streets and storefronts empty, these four strangers appear to be the sole inhabitants of a darkened city.
There are seventeen extant sketches for Nighthawks, fourteen in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, one in a private collection and the two present drawings. In the present two sketches, the development of the artist's vision can be noted in the changes from the preparatory works to the final painting, demonstrating Hopper's evolving plan for the painting. In the more finished sketch, the couple appears to be facing one another and interacting while in the painting, the couple looks straight ahead, apparently absorbed in their own thoughts. The lone man seated at the counter appears to turn towards the back window, whereas in the painting, he faces the couple. The boy working behind the counter has his head down in the sketch, looking towards the floor. In the painting, he looks out the window, between his customers.
In the earlier sketches for Nighthawks, Hopper originally intended for less of an angle of the building, which in the final painting becomes an integral part of the composition. In the present sketches, the structures are reduced to just a few lines, evidence of the artist's concern with establishing structure and forms. In the composition, Hopper uses a large horizontal wedge form for the diner, cutting across the picture to give the work depth. This simplification of line and form combines to create the powerful imagery that is evident in his most successful works.
For the design of the buildings seen in Nighthawks, Hopper may have used structures near his home in Greenwich Village, in particular, a wedge-shaped lot at Greenwich Avenue, Seventh Avenue and Eleventh Street. Hopper recalled that the scene for the painting "was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet...I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city."
Robert Hobbs writes, "Despite the number of writers who describe [Nighthawks] as a meditation on desolation and loneliness, the couple appears to be completely attuned to each other. Their gestures complement one another's, and their arms and shoulders form a cohesive trapezoid that bonds them together. The feeling of desolation in the painting may stem from the architecture of the diner, the lurid lights, and the mysterious presence of the third customer. In addition, the feeling of loneliness may have originally derived from the fact that Nighthawks was created the year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into World War II, a time when young men were sent off to the armed services and the entire country was caught up in the war effort. The fact of the war causes one to wonder exactly who the Nighthawks really are. They do not seem to be local business people, and they are certainly not military personnel. They appear to be outsiders, a fact underscored by the architecture and lighting of the diner, which separate them from the surrounding community of buildings." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1987, p. 131)
Hopper never painted the urban rush and excitement of the city. The men and women in his paintings are either alone or in small groups and are typically shown as stationary and without expression. Often they appear as part of the scene rather than the focal point, with the emptiness of their surroundings given equal importance to impart emotional emptiness and physical loneliness. The artist's interest in the solitude of people is probably rooted in Hopper's own personality. He was a loner who had no close friends other than the artist Guy Péne du Bois. In 1931, Péne du Bois described Hopper as, "A quiet, retiring, restrained man who has been working for a number of years in New York and Paris, almost as a hermit, rarely exhibiting and rarely appearing in those places where artists gather, though known by and knowing most of them." (as quoted in R. Hobbs, Edward Hopper, p. 120)
Different from other Modernist painters such as John Marin, Joseph Stella and Max Weber, who found inspiration in the vitality of the city, Hopper often painted at times of the day in which the streets were empty, portraying the loneliness of the city. Lloyd Goodrich notes, "He was one of our first representational painters to realize the pictorial possibilities of the modern city (in his case, New York) and the many kinds of visual material it represents: its heavy masses of masonry and concrete; the individual forms of buildings, their surfaces and ornamentation, the effect of light on them; the omnipresence of glass, and the phenomena of life seen through windows; night in the city with its multitude of lights and its ominous shadows." (Edward Hopper, New York, 1967, p. 103)
Many of Hopper's city interiors are seen through windows, from the viewpoint of a spectator looking in at unknowing characters. In Nighthawks, there is a view from the exterior into the interior and back out the exterior again. Observing the activities of within the diner, the viewer takes a role within the work becoming an urban voyeur. "The viewer of Nighthawks becomes another nighthawk, another creature who is unconnected to the reality of the war and who swarms around the brightly lit interior of the diner that both repulses and attracts and ultimately provides no possible means of entry." (R. Hobbs, Edward Hopper, p. 131)
These remarkable two sketches offer a view into the conceptualization of Hopper's most famous painting. They prove the work was a carefully conceived composition and not a scene he happened upon and spontaneously painted. In these dramatic and brilliant studies, Hopper captures the vulnerability of four people alone on a solicitous night. In a letter to Hopper's sister, Marion, Jo Hopper wrote, "Ed has just finished a fine picture--a lunch counter at night with 3 figures. Night Hawks would be a fine name for it."