Predatory Loneliness: Nighthawks

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. ‘

Published by

Renee Bolinger

Renee graduated Summa Cum Laude from Biola University in December 2009, earning a B.S. in Studio Arts and a B.A. in Philosophy. While at the school, she was awarded the ‘Outstanding Thesis Presentation’ by the Philosophy department, and the ‘Order of Peter & Paul’ by the Torrey Honors Institute. At present she is a practicing artist, working towards a Masters degree in philosophy at Northern Illinois University. Renee is passionate about making art and helping people understand it.

  • Mr. Poet

    Nice commentary. I checked out a blow up of the painting. The woman is looking down at her nails, actually, while the barhop may be making a comment to the dark-suited man. The man and woman have coffee cups by them. The other man has a plate of food by one elbow, indicative that he already has finished eating. Oddly enough, the other man is looking at something in his right hand, which looks like (to modern eyes) a cellphone, as if he is checking his messages or texting. How appropriate for such a painting! The shop across the street has a cash register, but nothing in the windows. It is a closed shop, but lacks a “For Lease” sign. The shades above the shop are drawn in peculiar ways. The far left and far right ones are the same level. But the inside right one is cockeyed at an angle that meets the light. The other one is raised up higher, and a cat sits in the window.

  • Renee Bolinger

    Good catch regarding the man at the bar; I hadn’t seen the object in his hand. It looks like the woman is glancing down not at her nails but at something in her hand… lipstick, maybe? It looks greenish. The shop might have a lease sign; there’s a light colored rectangle on the window opposite the register that could easily be a small sign indicating closure or availability. It’s powerful, as a hinted presence that indicates absence.

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