The Amon Carter Museum’s new exhibit “Art and and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine” includes works by artists known for food scenes: Norman Rockwell’s dinner-table Americana, Wayne Thiebaud’s whimsical pastry portraits. But the exhibition’s best-known painting was by an artist known for often stark, observational paintings of American life.
Edward Hopper was born in 1882, some 60 years before he painted Nighthawks, which famously depicts three customers and a waiter at a corner diner late at night. A man and a woman sit together, but don’t seem to be talking; the waiter is behind the counter, going about his business; another man sits off to the side, his back to the viewer. The street outside is empty.
“They appear lost in their own weariness and private concerns, their disconnection perhaps echoing the wartime anxiety felt by the nation as a whole,” says a line in the Hopper bio in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.
Nighthawks, which will be one of the biggest draws in the 60-painting exhibit at the Carter that also includes Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup and Turkey, by Roy Lichtenstein, is on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Nighthawks was inspired by a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet, “but the image — with its carefully constructed composition and lack of narrative — has a timeless, universal quality that transcends its particular locale,” says the description on the Art Institute’s website. “Fluorescent lights had just come into use in the early 1940s, and the all-night diner emits an eerie glow, like a beacon on the dark street corner. Hopper eliminated any reference to an entrance, and the viewer, drawn to the light, is shut out from the scene by a seamless wedge of glass.”
Not everyone sees isolation. Garold LaRue, co-owner of Fort Worth’s Avoca Coffee Shop, told Star-Telegram art critic Gaile Robinson that he sees the coffee.
“This is where the term ‘a cup of joe’ came from. This was good coffee,” he said. “I’m trying to make coffee like this.” LaRue’s partner, Jimmy Story, pointed out that although the man and woman aren’t talking to or looking at each other, they are touching hands. “Maybe it’s a first date or they are an old married couple. She’s wearing red. That might mean something.” (The red-haired woman was modeled after Hopper’s wife, Josephine.)
The painting’s deceptively simple composition can quickly call to mind the theater, film noir or album covers, and that simplicity and pop-culture ease could explain why it’s among the most parodied paintings in art (see sidebar).
Hopper was deep into his career when he painted Nighthawks, receiving his first exhibition in 1920 at age 37, according to the Heilbrunn timeline. He continued painting till 1965, a couple of years before his death in 1967 at age 84.