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How Edward Hopper “Storyboarded” His Painting Nighthawks

Edward Hopper's masterpiece, "Nighthawks" (1942), transcends mere representation to encapsulate a profound sense of mid-century urban isolation and ennui. Evoking the ambiance of after-hours solitude in a bustling American metropolis, the painting has become synonymous with a particular brand of existential loneliness. However, amidst its status as an icon of modern art, it's imperative to recognise that "Nighthawks" went through many stages of development.

Robin Cembalest at ARTnews has a post on how Edward Hopper "storyboarded" Nighthawks, finding and sketching out models for those three melancholic customers (one of whom you can see in an early rendering above), the employee in white, and the all-night diner (which you can see come together in chalk on paper below) in which they spend their time.

These "19 studies for Nighthawks," writes Cembalest, "reveal how Hopper choreographed his voyeuristic scene of the nighttime convergence of the man, a couple, and a server in the eerie Deco diner, refining every nuance of the countertop, the figures, the architecture, and the effects of the fluorescent lighting." With each iteration, additional elements coalesce: the diner settles into its setting, the illumination discovers its angle, the viewpoint transitions to that of an observer amidst the dimly lit thoroughfare. Cembalest, citing Whitney curator Carter Foster, characterises the culmination of this process as a “marvellous demonstration of both extreme specificity and near abstract compositional summation on the same surface beguilingly [which] reflects how empirical observation and imagination coexisted in Hopper’s head.”

Although Edward Hopper meticulously studied numerous real-world elements to craft "Nighthawks," the painting ultimately portrays a fictitious place. Interestingly, Hopper himself served as the model for the male figures, while his wife posed as the female counterpartAs for the locale, seen in the final drawing just above, Cembalest notes that "after years of research and scholarship, experts have determined that Nighthawks was not inspired by one specific diner. Rather, it was a composite of wedge-shaped intersections around Greenwich Avenue. Its curving prow seems partly inspired by the Flatiron Building." In some ways, it appeared almost hyper-realistic of New York to be a part of New York itself. Hopper managed to distill a quintessential essence of American place, akin to numerous other American places. For further insights into the captivating storyboarding go here see Nighthawks at Art News and see many more sketches. These sketches come courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art.



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