Finding Nighthawks
June 15, 2010 12:16 AM   Subscribe

Finding Nighthawks: Nearly seventy years after Edward Hopper finished what would become one of the icons of American art, Jeremiah Moss went in search of the diner that inspired it.
posted by scody (21 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
tl:dr - what were planners in New York thinking when they allowed some of the monstrosities uncovered in the article to be built?
posted by MuffinMan at 1:17 AM on June 15, 2010

Excellent article. More Hopper Hunting.
posted by chavenet at 1:20 AM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

That's a pretty good guess he comes up with there at the end. If you look the place up on Google Street View and do a virtual "walkaround," it does seem to fit...
posted by killdevil at 1:22 AM on June 15, 2010

I effing love me some Nighthawks. I do have a particular penchant when it comes to paintings for some of the more recent Americana - I've always referred to the Winslow Homer pieces in the Met as "mine," under the assumption that I'll acquire them in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. But Nighthawks stands out above the rest - I've spent hours in front of that thing sketching it and re-sketching it. I would have spent more if it hadn't been stuck in freakin Chicago - its always been something of a depressing irony to me that it isn't located at least in the city it is based upon.

That said, I think the author is way off. I think its much more likely that the original location that served as an inspiration - assuming it ever existed, which I don't believe it did - was on Greenwich *Street*, not Ave. I know that Hopper himself claimed it was a spot on "Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet." I know that makes my assertion rather crazed. But having spent countless hours both with that painting, and wandering the endless streets of the West Village by night, I can come to no other conclusion.

The author dismisses the background in his third installment with nary a wave of the hand, based on the inconsistencies of the charcoal sketches and the speculations that the background may have been simply imported from other work, but I think it holds more clues than anything. The coffee shop itself is unrealistic, after long and detailed consideration. It stretches abnormally further than most places you would ever see a pane of glass covering - in NYC or anywhere else - without some support girder interrupting the scene. I think Hopper needed this to convey the scene that he was searching to show inside the shop. Anything in that central rectangle of glass would effectively interrupt and ruin the scene. But if you focus on the forward window, and then the back window in its similar uninterrupted length, and then finally and perhaps most importantly, the lack of any street-front door to enter the shop, it screams out that this was no actual shop, but rather a painting within a painting. The story inside the diner is the important part to Hopper, everything else seems rather to be a framing to this story - this would in large part confirm the theories that the background was imported.

Regardless of whether the background was imported or not, however, I still think it lends a few hints. There is nowhere on Greenwich Ave, particularly where it meets 7th Ave South, where the cross street in the background of Hopper's piece is so narrow and the adjacent buildings so quietly close as to match the perspective in the painting, in my opinion. But if you walk 3-4 blocks west, depending on how far north or south you are on the Ave, you find quite a handful of quiet little corners that bear a striking resemblance to the one in this scene - particularly north-east corners when viewed from a southern standpoint. Corners with a background that look almost disturbingly similar to the background here, in some cases (I have a couple cross streets particularly in mind, but since I am showing my crazy here, I'll keep them to myself). The only thing that refutes my theory (other than Hopper's actual words of course), however, is the depth of the sidewalk in front of the diner - no sidewalk today is nearly of that depth on the east side of Greenwich Street, when viewed in conjunction with the background and the shape of the primary structure. I've chalked this up to the fact that Hopper needed a broad swath to carry out his rather perfect shadowing across, without bringing more "business" into the front of the piece itself, and that this - like the location itself - is in the end contrived.

In the end, I suppose I'm rather glad that the author of the investigation was not able to find any substantive conclusion on the location (although I admit it was rather interesting to follow). This confirms for me both my crazed theory above, and the fact that in the end, inspired by a location on either the street or the avenue, the place itself never really existed. I think the people did, however, and I think they still do, every night in NYC. I think the alone-ness that comes at night in the city that never sleeps was really Hopper's point.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:23 AM on June 15, 2010 [20 favorites]


He doesn't find it. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, but if you're bored by the first few paragraphs, the rest is pretty much the same.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:51 AM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is wonderful piece of suspense, and I really enjoyed it, but he doesn't seem to have any idea how an artist like Hopper works, grabbing chunks and bits and details out of reality, the studio and the trunk of memory, building them up here, smoothing them out here, to create a generalization out of made up detail that creates this third, even truer intensification of reality that is also paint on canvas. Hopper doesn't pain real places, but vivid dream spaces built out of memory, reality and scenes half-glimpsed out of a cab or a train window -- and determined partly by his limitations as a draftsman and long complacence with his technique.
posted by Faze at 3:58 AM on June 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Indeed. Follow-up series: Why Isn't Jay Gatsby in the 1925 Long Island Phone Book?
posted by rory at 4:47 AM on June 15, 2010 [11 favorites]

What? An artist creates something that doesn't directly map to reality? That's unpossible!
posted by jscalzi at 5:29 AM on June 15, 2010

He doesn't find it.

Either that guy or this guy is lying.
posted by DU at 5:33 AM on June 15, 2010

Interesting that the first comment is by vastly under-appreciated sf novelist Jack Womack (anyone who's read his books will not be surprised at his interest and knowledge of NYC historical trivia).
posted by aught at 5:42 AM on June 15, 2010

theres always been a few nighthawks on perry st : )
posted by sgt.serenity at 6:47 AM on June 15, 2010

The psychology of this kind of nostalgia is interesting.

The world of the painting is a fantasy (in the obvious, not the derogatory, sense). But the real diner is a fantasy too, now that it's been lost to time. (Conversely, imagine the writer had reason to believe the diner was still open for business somewhere--how that would alter the quality of his desire.)

What is the operative longing here? Is the writer somehow transposing into the real world a desire to enter the world of the painting--imagining that if Nighthawks existed, it would show that experience in the real world can have the condensed, enchanting quality of aesthetic experience? Or is it the other way around, such that the Hopper painting is really just an emblem of the past for this writer--one more thing that feeds his desire for the past of New York?
posted by Beardman at 7:12 AM on June 15, 2010

That was slightly less of a letdown than Looking For Calvin and Hobbes.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:31 AM on June 15, 2010

I would have spent more if it hadn't been stuck in freakin Chicago

I gotta say the fact that we have both Nighthawks and American Gothic in the same museum is pretty awesome, considering the spectrum implied.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:44 AM on June 15, 2010

Fun post. I enjoyed the mystery and was unsurprised by the conclusion. The creative process does not always map to reality well.

I do know that when this scene appeared in Pennies From Heaven I got goosebumps.

Nobody conveys mood quite like Hopper.
posted by kinnakeet at 12:24 PM on June 15, 2010

Nighthawks has been one of my favorite paintings for as long as I can remember. I have a print of it hanging on my dining room wall, and I'm glancing at it as I type this.

For me, having spent most of my life in small-town Kansas, the location in the painting has always been a "real" destination in my mind's eye, a place where I get to create the backstory and the narrative, to psychoanalyze the characters, to imagine what it's like to be in a diner in the middle of a big city in the wee hours of the night, to fantasize about what happens next.

The diner doesn't need to be a really real in real-life place in order for it to be very real to me. In fact, I think that would detract from it.
posted by amyms at 1:13 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Excellent post, thanks!
posted by languagehat at 6:22 PM on June 15, 2010

I agree, the painting's diner exists only in the imagination, and that's its brilliance. The way it grades from darkness to light, with the seated patrons hanging in the space between, directly suggests a movement from dream time to harsh reality. We can forgive, even if he used a real model, the elision of doors and window supports, the same way we forgive when the movie camera is clearly placed outside the room we are looking at because it's a set with no fourth wall or even, often, a ceiling.

I can say that I would never have thought it could be a real diner, except in the vaguest sense of a drastically more realistic building used as a rough template. To presume that there was a precise model does, I believe, misunderstand the creative process an artist like Hopper used.

I can also see why the art deco gas station has come to occupy popular imagination as a possible model, but there were many such gas stations and diners, generally, were remodelings of existing buildings that could easily not survive as storefront upon storefront covered it up. I am somewhat fascinated that the building with the mural was also a building with a mural 77 years ago.
posted by dhartung at 11:30 PM on June 15, 2010

> To presume that there was a precise model does, I believe, misunderstand the creative process an artist like Hopper used.

Your comment is excellent in general, but this seems to share a misunderstanding exhibited by others above (cf. Faze's "he doesn't seem to have any idea how an artist like Hopper works"). The author of the linked posts is not "presuming" anything and he knows perfectly well that it is likely to be a composite (he refers to that possibility a number of times), but his psychology is such that he wants very much for it to have been a real diner that (ideally) he can touch a remnant of, and he enjoys doing a careful search for such a diner (just as we, or at least I, enjoy reading about it). It's a quixotic quest, not blind ignorance or stupidity. The insistence on assuming the worst about people is one of the things I least like about MetaFilter.
posted by languagehat at 8:42 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wasn't there a fairly well-known version of Nighthawks with the figures replaced by 1950s-vintage celebrities (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, possibly Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley as well)?
posted by acb at 4:05 PM on June 17, 2010

Google Images has several Nighthawks parodies (or homages, depending on your point of view). Here's the James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, etc. version.
posted by amyms at 6:20 PM on June 17, 2010

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