Are humans only lonely when they are alone? Do images of people together conjure up feelings of inclusion and acceptance or those of disconnection and emptiness? Humans need relationships that offer a sense of belonging. These connections, made by spending time with people, add value to human life. Yet at one time or another everyone has or will feel lonely while with others or even in a group. Some artists use human figures to create a comforting sense of connectedness while others strive to show the raw, vulnerability of loneliness. Through contrast, geometric lines and shapes, and generalization, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks thwarts the theme of togetherness and community in a group to bring focus to loneliness and isolation that is often felt when surrounded by others.Order now
Nighthawks uses contrast to evoke the feelings of loneliness and isolation. The inside of the diner is glowing whereas everything outside of it is dark. Fluorescent lights from inside the building flow out into the night leaving shadows in the darkness which creates a dramatic contrast of light and dark in the painting. This contrast draws viewers to focus on what is going on inside making it appear that the four people are the only ones still awake in the city. The light is the brightest in the upper right-hand corner of the restaurant’s ceiling. It spreads across the faces of the characters and reflects the lack of emotion on their indifferent faces which strengths the sense of loneliness.
The intense, artificial light inside alienates the four individuals not only from the rest of the dark city but from each other. The only shadows are outside of the cafe which shows that there are no outside lights. Outside lights would put shadows inside the establishment as well. These outside shadows in the dark add to the eerie, lonely feeling. Even the color choices used inside the diner contrast with the colors used outside of it. Light colors inside contrast with the dark colors outside creating a deeper sense of isolation. The inside of the restaurant takes up the right two-thirds of the painting and includes a yellow wall, a dark yellow interior door, a woman wearing red, and a server dressed in white. The outside is in stark contrast with dark greens and reddish browns. This color contrast emphasizes the isolation of the subjects. The bright colors used inside instantly bring the observer’s attention to the characters in the painting. Although the outside is one-third of the painting, the drastic contrast makes it seems bigger and makes the inside of the cafe appears smaller. This serves to further isolate the individuals.
Geometric lines and shapes are used to enhance the effect of separation in the painting. There are strong diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines inside and outside the diner. The horizontal and vertical lines draw the reader in, move the eye around the entire painting, and bring focus to the main subject, the people in the restaurant. Space is created in front of the cafe where the lines form a sidewalk and a rectangular glass window putting distance between the onlooker and the characters in the painting. The angular lines of the building form a triangle which extends outside and walls off the customers and the waiter from the spectator increasing the sense of isolation.
The counter mirrors this unique angle giving a direct view of the faces of the woman and one of the men. This unusual viewpoint allows the observer to witness that the subjects are together but still look lonely. Clear rectangular windows in front of and behind the subjects let the viewer’s eye look inside them and feel their loneliness. The strong use of horizontal and vertical lines makes it obvious that there is not a door visible to get in or out of the establishment. This lack of an exterior door further alienates, almost trapping, the subjects inside. Additional distance is created between the viewer and the four individuals in the painting with the row of seven round bar stools, six of them empty, which increases the sense of loneliness. Interestingly, the man sitting on a bar stool is not on the end. Rather, the figure is surrounded by geometric shapes instead of people. The man has one empty round bar stool on his left, and five empty round bar stools on his right to intentionally alienate him.
Generalization is used to induce sentiments of loneliness and isolation. There is nothing identifiable inside or outside of the cafe. The only sign is an advertisement to buy Phillies cigars for five cents. Since this is in English and advertising a purchase price in American money, the location is probably somewhere in the United States. There are no other signs on the buildings nor is there a street sign on the corner. This lack of detail triggers feelings of loneliness entangling the observer in the painting to relive painful memories. Lack of details create an everyday, real experience that is easily imaginable. If the restaurant was set in a well-known city, spectators would be distracted with that fact. They would think about whether they like that place, whether they have ever been, or whether they would want to visit. An unnamed diner, on a nonspecific street corner, in an unstated city creates a common place that onlookers can place themselves in. This allows those observing the painting to put themselves at the counter, with others but alone, and feel the isolation that the painting evokes.
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks moves away from the idyllic theme of togetherness and community in a group to bring attention to loneliness and isolation that is often felt while in the company of other people by using contrast, geometric lines and shapes, and generalization. The contrasts of light and dark as well as color isolates the characters. Geometric lines and shapes separate the subjects from the viewer increasing their alienation. The deliberate lack of identifiable details invites observers to pull up a bar stool and grab a cup of loneliness. The design elements and generalization used by Hopper force spectators to experience the rawness and vulnerability that is felt when someone is not alone but lonely.