Edwards Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks” is among the most famous and beloved paintings in the world. Three late-night customers sit in front of a restaurant counter while being waited on by a man in a white uniform. The bright light of the restaurant casts a glow on the surrounding darkness through large glass windows. The scene seems to capture the sense of isolation in contemporary city life.
Are people in the picture talking to each other? What are they talking about? How did they end up here? The painting asks a thousand questions. It’s mysterious and moody and endlessly captivating.
One question we know of answer of, is that the scene is set in New York City. However, its actual location is a bit of a mystery.
According to Edward Hopper’s biography, Gail Levin, the setting “was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” However, Hopper was also quoted as saying “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”
The restaurant in the picture is prow-shaped. Greenwich Avenue is a “diagonal” street that cuts across Manhattan’s roughly North-South avenues and East-West streets. There are many places where two streets come together forming less than a 90-degree angle. Hopper lived for more than 50 years at nearby Washington Square, so he would’ve had been very familiar with this neighborhood.
“People want to find the real diner, but Hopper was a synthesizer,” says Carter Foster, a curator at the Whitney Museum. Foster and his team spent three years digging through archives and retracing the artist’s steps through Greenwich Village, where he lived for more than five decades, to find the real-life locations that inspired his work. For “Nighthawks”, the teamed concluded that the venue turned out to be both concrete and imagined.
After studying archival photos at the New York Public Library, Foster determined that the most likely location for the diner was 70 Greenwich Avenue, at the intersection of Greenwich Avenue and 11th Street. Although it is now occupied by a florist, photos from the 30s show it used to be a tobacconist of some sort. In that case, the restaurant was most likely transplanted from another location. Foster suggested two possible sources.
The first possibility is a few blocks down Greenwich Avenue, at the corner of 12th Street. A restaurant named Crawford Lunch used to stand there. In Hopper’s final preparatory sketch, the plate glass even displays the word LUNCH, same as in real life. Hopper likely walked by this building often, shuttling between his home on Washington Square and the public library at Greenwich Avenue and Horatio Street. However, this building was a squared-off brick structure with conventional windows, unlike the Nighthawks diner.
The sleek curves of the Nighthawks diner can be found not too far away, though, farther north at the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street. The Flatiron and its prow were built in 1902 and Hopper would no doubt know it well.
The prow on the Flatiron could be right out of Nighthawks, with its black steel exterior and rounded glass end. The proportions of the panel below the windows are extremely similar, and in Hopper’s era, the prow of the Flatiron also housed a cigar store with a sign overhead.
So there you have it. Go stand outside the Flatiron Building. From the correct angle, use your imagination, perhaps you can conjure up the solitary figures in Nighthawks.
A Supreme American Realist
“Hopper simply happens to be a bad painter. But if he were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist.”
This was the observation of critic Clement Greenberg, the leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism in the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, painting did not come easily to Edward Hopper. Each canvas represented a long, morose gestation spent in solitary thought. There were no sweeping brushstrokes from a fevered hand, no electrifying eurekas. He considered, discarded and pared down ideas for months before he squeezed even a drop of paint onto his palette.
Born in Nyack, New York, Hopper was a New York artist through and through. After high school, he studied art and illustration in New York City. His art was greatly influenced by one of his instructors, Robert Henri. Henri encouraged his students to emancipate themselves from tired academic formulas, espousing a realism that plunged into the seamier aspects of American cities for its subject matter. This style of realism came to be known as the Ashcan School.
Between 1906 and 1910, Hopper made three trips to Europe. He lived primarily in Paris, and in letters home he rhapsodized about the beauty of the city and its citizens’ appreciation of art. Despite his exposure to the emerging abstract movements in Europe, Hopper embarked on his own distinctive form of realism when he when he returned to the states. In any case, Hopper’s own Parisian pictures gave intimations of the painter he was to become. It was there that he put aside the portrait studies and dark palette of the Henri years to concentrate on architecture, depicting bridges and buildings glowing in the soft French light.
In spite of his long, methodical creative process, Hopper created more than 800 known paintings, watercolors and prints, as well as numerous drawings and illustrations. His stark yet intimate interpretations of American life, sunk in shadow or broiling in the sun, are minimal dramas suffused with maximum power. Hopper had a remarkable ability to invest the most ordinary scene—whether at a roadside gas pump, a nondescript diner or a bleak hotel room—hwith intense mystery, creating narratives that no viewer can ever quite unravel. His frozen and isolated figures often seem awkwardly drawn and posed, but he eschewed making them appear too graceful or showy, which he felt would be false to the mood he sought to establish. Hopper’s fidelity to his own vision, which lingered on the imperfections of human beings and their concerns, made his work a byword for honesty and emotional depth.
Many of Hopper’s works were set in New York City or New England. He lived the rest of his life at the north edge of Washington Square after he returned from Europe, and vacationed in the New England countryside.
Arguably the supreme American realist of the 20th century, Hopper’s work can be seen at all of the major art museums in New York City. In January 1930, House by the Railroad became the first painting by any artist to enter the permanent collection of New York’s newly established Museum of Modern Art. Later that year, the Whitney Museum of American Art bought Early Sunday Morning for $2,000; it would become a cornerstone of that new institution’s permanent collection.
Hopper and his wife Jo passed away within months of each other in 1967. Upon her death, she bequeathed her archive to the Whitney Museum. In addition, important Hopper works can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum.
Hopper fans can also the house on Nyack, where he and his sister Marion grew up. Although Edward left home in his youth, Marion lived there until her death. The home is now open to the public as an art center.