Though Nighthawks represents some of Edward Hopper’s best work and is one of the most recognizable paintings of the 20th Century, he did not gain immediate renown for his art. The author is said to have drawn inspiration for this painting from The Killers, a 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway and Vincent van Gogh’s Café de Nuit which captures the nocturnal atmosphere of late-night establishments.
The protagonists of the scene are the man with the hat and cigarette and the young woman adorned in a red dress, in their close proximity, portrait and self-portrait of Hopper and the artist’s real-life companion, Josephine Verstille Nivison, respectively — she jealously insisted on being the sole female model for all of Hopper’s art. Jo and Edward had a tumultuous relationship marked by violence and abuse, so the title of the work and its tense atmosphere would seem to refer right to their marriage — as well as to the beak-shaped nose of the man at the bar, or to some references to the meaning of the word, such as “Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant”, as Jo suggested in some handwritten notes about the painting.
The scene was supposedly inspired by a diner — since demolished — in Greenwich Village, Hopper’s neighborhood in Manhattan. Hopper himself said the painting “was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet”. Additionally, he noted that “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger”.
Because it is so widely recognized, the diner scene in Nighthawks has served as the model for many homages and parodies, from Ralph Goings and the Photorealists of the late 1960s and early 1970s or Roger Brown’s Puerto Rican Wedding to Gottfried Helnwein’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Banksy’s Are You Using That Chair, and many others.