15 Things You Might Not Know About Nighthawks

Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection.
Edward Hopper. Nighthawks, 1942. The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection.

The quiet night scene of Edward Hopper’s most renowned painting sticks in the mind of anyone who sees it and feels familiar to anyone who’s taken an art history class. It may seem straightforward, but this deceptively simple piece holds a lot of secrets. 

1. HOPPER’S WIFE WAS ITS first art historian.

Josephine Hopper (née Nivison) oversaw a shared journal, where she and her husband took notes on his paintings. This is how we know the precise date of Nighthawks' completion (January 21, 1942), and various other details, like that the painting was originally titled Night Hawks

2. Nighthawks was an instant classic. 

When Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, first laid eyes on the painting a few short months after Hopper put on the final touches, he declared it was as "fine as Homer"—referencing the 19th century American landscape painter. 

Rich was quick to purchase Nighthawks for the Art Institute for $3000 ($43,200.37 adjusting for inflation). The Hopper classic is still on display in the Institute’s galleries. 

3. It's bigger than you MIGHT expect. 

A quiet scene that could be the beginning or end of a million different stories, Nighthawks seems like it might be a small painting like the Mona Lisa. But in fact, it measures 33 1/8 inches by 60 inches,  roughly 2.75 feet by 5 feet. 

4. The TITLE Nighthawks may have been A NOD TO one of the diner's patrons. 

In Josephine's notes, she wrote a description of one of the customers: "Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette." This note suggests that the prominent nose of this patron makes the painting’s title a bit more literal.  

5. Both Edward and Josephine Hopper were models for Nighthawks. 

In a letter to his sister Marion, Josephine shared, "Ed has just finished a very fine picture—a lunch counter at night with 3 figures. Night Hawks would be a fine name for it. E. posed for the two men in a mirror and I for the girl. He was about a month and half working on it."

6. Hopper storyboarded the painting ahead of Nighthawks' creation.

Hopper became an avid sketch artist when he was just 10 years old, and as an adult he could often be found prowling the streets of New York, sketch pad and pencil in hand. While sketches are often the first step for a painting's creation, Hopper took it a step further by sketching storyboards to pick the precise moments he wanted to immortalize in the final painting. A 2013 exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art displayed 200 Hopper sketches, including 19 that led to Nighthawks, clearly laying out the work's evolution. 

7. A HEMINGWAY SHORT STORY MAY HAVE HELPED INSPIRE THE PAINTING. 

Noted Hopper biographer Gail Levin has said, "Nighthawks was inspired by Hemingway's short story 'The Killers,' which Hopper read in Scribner's magazine and liked so much when it first came out, that he wrote a fan letter to Scribner's. He said that this writer was so much better than the rest and it was unusual that it wasn't sentimental or saccharin like so many stories. But that short story has the sense of something about to happen, and it never does. In a sense, Hopper's paintings are just like that. So that enables writers and filmmakers–fiction writers and poets, and other artists, perhaps too–to project their own imagination…and the viewer in general." 

8. There may be some influence from Van Gogh's Café At Night. 

Based on the similar theme and concentration on the play of light at night, Levin has also proposed that the famous Vincent Van Gogh piece may have sparked ideas in Hopper. Interestingly, Café at Night was exhibited in New York in January of 1942, right as Hopper was working on Nighthawks. It's probable that Hopper would have seen Van Gogh’s painting, as his own works were also on display at the same venue. 

9. A popular reading of the piece focuses on "wartime isolation." 

Its characters are separated from the outside world by the light and windows Hopper carefully rendered. There's no door shown that would allow the viewer conceivable entrance into this lonely nighttime world. And even in their shared space, the characters are close without touching. Painted right after the American entry into World War II, Nighthawks can be seen as an illustration of the chilling effects of that world-changing conflict.

10. But For Hopper, it was about feeling alone in a crowd. 

Many of the artist’s works reflected the isolation that could be felt amid the bustle of New York City. Of Nighthawks, the New York native said, "Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

11. The diner's flUorescent light MADE HOPPER’S JOB TRICKIER.

In the early 1940s, commercial use of fluorescent lighting was still a relatively new phenomenon. To properly capture its luminance, Hopper experimented with a zinc white paint instead of a lead white one. However, in a lengthy interview recorded on June 17, 1959, Hopper explained how the zinc white ultimately cracked, demanding a renovation where it was replaced by the lead white. Because of this bad experience, Hopper never used zinc white again. 

12. Hopper claimed THE Nighthawks diner was based on a real place. 

He was cagey about naming the actual eatery, though. His only clue: "[Nighthawks] was suggested by a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet." 

13. The actual location of this inspiration is a matter of debate. 

Popular opinion favors Mulry Square, a small triangular lot at Greenwich Avenue and Seventh Avenue. However, historical records show that a gas station occupied the lot in the early 1940s, not a diner. 

In 2014, a restaurant on Greenwich Street declared itself Nighthawks' inspiration after a Chicago native wandered in and noted the similarities between the place's layout and the famous painting. This is how Classic's Café at 679 Greenwich Street came to change its name to Nighthawks. 

14. The Nighthawks diner is likely an amalgamation OF SEVERAL SPOTS. 

In May 2013, New York Magazine set out to track down the real inspiration for Nighthawks, scouring streets and historical photographs to settle the discussion once and for all. They ultimately determined Hopper's picture-perfect diner was made up of various elements of Manhattan architecture. These components include a glass-and-steel storefront on 11th Street, the curve of the Flatiron Building, and a long-gone restaurant called Crawford Lunch. Fittingly, a 3D version of Nighthawks was created within a display window of the Flatiron Building in the summer of 2013.

15. Nighthawks has inspired countless other artists. 

As one of the most iconic works in the history of American art, Nighthawks has popped up throughout pop culture. In the fine arts, you can see its inspiration in George Segal's sculpture The Diner, Roger Brown's painting Puerto Rican Wedding, Banksy's Nighthawks and Gottfried's Helnwein's Boulevard of Broken Dreams, which populated Phillie's diner with tragic celebrities like James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. 

Poet Wolf Wondratschek and novelist Joyce Carol Oates both wrote works named for Nighthawks. American singer-songwriter Tom Waits named his 1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner and threw his own spin on the painting by placing himself in a similar scenario on the record's cover. Nighthawks classic scene is alluded to in films like Dario Argento's Deep Red, Wim Wenders’s The End of Violence, James Foley's Glengarry Glen Ross, and Herbert Ross' Pennies From Heaven. Plus it influenced the aesthetic of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Alex Proyas' Dark City.

Art

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

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