Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks maybe the most famous painting of urban isolation. Don’t buy it? Let me try to help. When you’re attempting to understand a piece, the first step is to see it well. Look at the formal elements: color, shapes, and focal points. Once you can see what you’re looking at, you’ll be able to sense the mood and metaphors of the piece.
In Nighthawks, the colors are primarily a dark blue-green contrasted with a warm red-orange. This is a complementary palette in which each color heightens the other. The cream colored far wall of the diner is the brightest portion of the painting, and convinces us that the diner is actually well lit.
The shapes are primarily angular: the windows, doors, bar, and the yawning expanse behind the three seated figures are simple rectangles. The diner forms a strong diagonal from the right edge of the painting, giving depth to what would otherwise be a suffocatingly shallow surface. Even the four figures are angular: their shoulders, hats, noses, and even their postures form triangles. The stools, which you would expect to be circular, are painted from a perspective that makes them nearly rectangles.
The woman in the red dress is the primary focal point. She wears the most saturated color in the painting and sits at the highest contrast intersection (the white wall against the black night outside the window). The other figures blend into their backgrounds: the server is white against a light wall; the two men wear dark jackets and melt into the dark atmosphere.
Compositionally, Hopper’s painting is haunting. Most of the space is empty; the streets echo with loneliness. Despite their relatively close grouping, the figures aren’t interacting. The lone man facing away from us slumps his shoulders and stares down at the bar. The couple sit next to each other, but both stare in the direction of the bartender, who appears to be returning their gaze. But their eyes never meet: the bartender’s line of sight travels over the man’s right shoulder and out into the night.
The scene reads as a single, intricate metaphor for loneliness. The diner is in a city, a hub of people, but there is no one on the streets. The patrons are gathered around a table for a meal—typically a social event—but there is no interaction, no society, no warmth. The yawning windows are empty, and look out on more emptiness. The green halo of light cast by the diner illuminates a sidewalk leading to where we, the viewers, lurk in darkness, voyeuristically peering through those vast sheets of glass. The painting is quiet with the kind of eerie silence that prevails at night, in rooms where everyone is a stranger. ‘