Edward Hopper’s painting ‘Nighthawks’ (1942) hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. It depicts a diner occupied by three lonely customers and a waiter who serves them. The painting’s point of view is from the outside looking in, and the connecting street is empty. The streets are empty and seem to wrap around the diner which is occupied by its four solitary individuals in a brightly lit diner that is harshly set against the night. It is late at night, presumably, and only the nighthawks are on the town. In this paper, it will be argued that Edward Hopper’s painting visually captures the writer Henry David Thoreau’s thought that “the mass of men leads lives of quiet desperation” (8).
Thoreau meant that most people live out their lives everyday without realizing their own suffering. If they do realize it, they do not articulate it. People suffer and they hide their suffering from others. They keep it hidden, and put on a smiling face instead. Thoreau writes that it is the mass of men who live like this and he means it is all of us. All of humanity lives a life where suffering is not allowed to be openly recognized, and only appearances are acceptable ways to present oneself. By desperation Thoreau meant desperation in the sense of striving to achieve something in life, but the desperation is quiet, it is hidden, and one must put on a front to pleases the masses. Hopper’s painting is hardly one of a crowd; it is rather a depiction of four individuals, but oddly they do not seem individuated in the painting, and it could very well be faces in a crowd. Their expressions lack affect, and it is difficult to pinpoint emotion in the scene. The window is the only transparent object in the painting. There are no curtains and the viewer is able to see inside without obstruction. Although it is ironic, because if the eyes are the windows to the soul, then these windows are open but it is not the soul that is laid bare, but rather the emptiness of the American inner life.
It is interesting that in the painting the point of view of the work is as if one is walking by the diner, looking inside. From the look of appearances the diner is clean. The shiny coffee machine is nicely polished. The waiter wears a crisp uniform and his hair is cut short. He has cleaned the area and its walls are nicely absent of clutter. The diners, all of three of them are relatively nicely dressed. The two men wear hats, coats and ties, and the one woman is attired in a red dress. Yet it is in the faces that we can read Thoreau’s quote of quiet desperation. No one seems to be in conversation with one another, except the waiter. He has just looked up as if to say something, but it could just be a simple, “Would you like another cup of coffee, sir?” The man and the woman are not in conversation, and the lone man sitting to the side is by himself. It is not that sitting in a diner alone connotes desperation, but rather it is the juxtaposition of nice suits, a crisp, brightly lit diner set against the backdrop of night that creates a dissonance between life and death, conversation and silence, together and loneliness.
Thoreau was writing during a time when he felt American society had lost touch with nature, and the rise of the factories were forcing men to work and to be disconnected with the vitality of a lived experience. Hopper’s painting is devoid of the vitality of nature. In fact there are no trees on this street corner, and in fact, there is no vision even of the night sky. The road is completely empty. If one zooms in on the windows of the buildings opposite the diner, the windows are darkened, and as Levin has pointed out in his essay on surrealism and Hopper (183-184). Levin also points out that Hopper was conversant with the theories of Freud, which were also gaining traction in America during the time period Hopper was painting. Thoreau offers the diagnosis, while Freud’s theory of the mind, that the unconscious is hidden, and it is our conscious life that masks a deeper unconscious force may have been influential for Hopper.
The painting is evocative of a dream, which leads one to conclude that the painting is indeed the quiet life of man in desperation as if Hopper would have painted Thoreau’s indictment of the missing hidden life of American society. With all of its material wealth, with its production boom the war brought forth, the psychological life of American society is brightly lit inside the diner, but around life is empty and alone. It is exactly this thesis of the darker, more hidden underbelly of the unconscious that lies in Thiesen’s analysis of the work. He argues that the painting indeed points to some of the hidden, darker aspects of not only the darker underbelly of the unconscious mind, but the quiet desperation of a country at war
Of course, to understand a work of art is also to put it into historical context. Hopper’s painting is circa World War II America, where the convergence of technology’s promise of boon, has been met with the ravages of war. America has been prosperous but it has still left people unhappy. The war has produced a mass of men. A mass of men fighting overseas and a mass of men at home. The denizens of the night scene in Hopper’s painting are perhaps middle class, but their desires have not been met. The advertising strip that is printed about them promises “America’s No. 1 cigar,” and one can imagine that signs like these have been printed everywhere, reminding Americans that they can have number one. Number one in coffee, in success, in cigars, in women, in nightlife. It’s only five cents! The “only” of the advertisement both promises fulfillment of desire, but like the empty streets that surround the brightly lit diner, it is also an empty promise of desire fulfilled.
It is also possible to see ‘Nighthawks’ as conveying Thoreau’s quote because the painting itself is superficial. It does not adequately convey the inner life of its subjects, and its simple effects gives the impression of not much rumbling beneath the surface. In fact, the critic Munson declaims Hoppers for never really developing the knack to convey the inner life of his subjects, and instead focusing on the superficial (67). If one looks at Hopper’s works they tend to be depictions of houses, and of buildings, and his human forms are often looking outward, and away. Munson explains it is because Hopper was never actually proficient at drawing, and failed as a colorist. Yet it is also because perhaps unintentionally he is bringing out Thoreau’s claim that Americans are in love with the appearance of things, with the outer pragmatism of appearance, of work, and the mass of men neglect the inner life. For if the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation it is probably because they are not looking at the inner life, and their desperation becomes manifest outwardly.
In conclusion, it is not a far stretch to compare Thoreau’s indictment of American Society in his book Walden with Hopper’s painting that reflects Thoreau’s indictment. It has been the argument of this paper that Hopper’s allegiance to the superficial, to the outward, suggests the quiet desperation that lies underneath the appearances of everyday life. It is possible, then, to see ‘Nighthawks,” at two distinct levels. At the level of outward appearances it is a simply colored painting of Americans alone together in a diner late at night. At the level of deeper meaning it is the hollowed out shell of the psyche, where the appearances are laid intact, but the inner life is troubled and in need of salvation.
Hopper, Edward. ‘The Nighthawks.’ Retrieved online from the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Munson, S. C. "Hopper's Appeal: Resolving the paradox of a bad painter and a great artist."
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