Nightbirds

I leaned up against my bannister
And I’ve been looking for some kind of an emotional investment
With romantic dividends, yeah kind of a physical negotiation is underway
Well, as I attempt to consolidate all my missed weekly rendezvous
Into one-low-monthly payment, through the nose…
But the chances are that more than likely
Standing underneath a moon holding water
I’ll probably be held over for another smashed weekend.

~Tom Waits

There’s this one painting that I really like. It’s a colorful painting depicting a few people in a diner at night. It’s a period piece. I can never remember, though, the title of the painting.

It’s always on the tip of my tongue, but when I reach for the name what always rolls out is “Nightbirds.” Something doesn’t seem right, but that’s all I got. My friend, Seth, likes to tease me about this, and he will even quiz me occasionally over the painting’s title—“Daniel, is it Nightbirds, Nightowls, or Nighthawks? Or is it maybe Night-crows or Night-canaries?” Though the perpetual elusiveness of the title is a little annoying, Nighthawks remains one of my favorite works of art.

It is an oil painting completed in 1942 by Edward Hopper. It is exceptionally recognizable and is one of the most iconic works in America. (The snob in me wants to pick a new favorite painting since Nighthawks is so universally popular, but I can’t bring myself to do it.)

Technically the painting is exquisite. Likely the first aspect one notices is the bright room in the dark night. Hopper captures the effects of artificial, fluorescent light and its ability to glare brightly in the dead of night. He makes his contrast with very little white and black, and instead accomplishes this with a murky green and unnatural yellow. Also in regards to color, the woman’s bright red quickly draws the viewer’s attention to the lower right quadrant.

Other notable technical elements include the minimalist presentation with large flat surfaces devoid of significant detail. In addition, the perspective and composition of the painting is mesmerizing—the angular room and the large glass panes framing the entire scene. In this dramatic work, Hopper masterfully draws in his viewers.

On the other hand, the painting’s subject is also interesting. I remember reading at some point that Hopper rarely painted with thematic intent, but it is clear that something has slipped in here. The premise of an all-night diner is, in itself, a cultural statement, and the consolidation of the patrons in the bottom corner evokes an overwhelming feeling of isolation. There are no open windows or doors to allow us into their company. They are permanently separated from us as they wait out the night.

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