Seventy years ago Edward Hopper completed his masterpiece, a chilling painting that captured the reality and pain of human loneliness. (For the information completist, the painting was finished on January 21, 1942). Nighthawks has become the iconic symbol of a supposed human inability to speak with others, much less understand them. The four figures in the painting do not speak. Hopper used himself as the model for both the man sitting next to his wife and the stranger sitting alone, as though he couldn't communicate with either his spouse or even his own self. His wife Jo was the model for the woman.
Much has been made of the fact that there is no entrance or exit from the diner, as though this were an existential illustration of being trapped in a world with lights so bright they don't let us hide and situated in a cosmos as impenetrably dark as a black hole.
When I look at the picture, I understand the standard critical reaction, but I see Nighthawks not only as a human but also as a writer. For me, the picture illuminates the writing condition, not just the human one.
To adapt the language of surrealism, Nighthawks shows a reality that looks like reality--like a photograph--but that pictured reality was never real. The picture describes a fictional world but with the verisimilitude to make viewers believe it genuinely existed. Indeed, based on a misleading statement by Hopper that he used a real diner as his model, generations of fans went in search of the place. It took an intrepid blogger named Jeremiah Moss to search diligently among historical documents in New York City and sadly conclude in a New York Times article that "the discovery that the "Nighthawks" diner never existed, except as a collage inside Hopper's imagination, feels like yet another terrible demolition."
Let's call what occurs in the real world "real reality" and what happens in the painting "seeming reality." But this seeming reality is better than real reality (it's ironically more real) because real reality has limits that seeming reality doesn't. Hopper needed for there to be a diner on that corner with those people sitting just where they sat when he wanted them to sit there. But the diner and the people weren't really there. (The surrealists, of course, called the seeming reality super real and then elided the words to form the word "surreal"). Seeming reality, however, differs from super reality because surrealist art focuses on scenes that appear to have a photographic reality but can't, even in principle, occur in real life. Melting pocket watches can't hang limply over tree limbs (as in Dali's The Persistence of Memory). Neither can a bird in a cage replace a head and body (as in Magritte's The Therapist). In contrast, as in Nighthawks, seeming reality could in principle occur in real life.
By using seeming reality, Hopper was able to offer not just a picture of reality that appeared to cohere with the real world, but emotional insights that would not have been available had he limited himself to real reality. This seeming reality, like realistic or naturalistic fiction, is revealing. By being able to be more flexible than real reality, it can present images to us that distill and illuminate the human condition more forcefully and better than real reality. That is why realistic fiction and other arts are so incredibly valuable and so needed by society.
Hopper sought to find a way to illustrate human loneliness and found in his imagination an image not available in real reality. From the reaction across the generations, the picture's audiences found Hopper's efforts painfully powerful.