Jeremiah Moss, who runs the most excellent blog, Vanishing New York, has a piece in the Times about the location of Edward Hopper’s famous painting, “Nighthawks.” Moss dug through archival photographs and microfilm to pinpoint the exact spot only to discover that the scene Hopper painted didn’t entirely exist in the first place:
Back home, I dug through my bookshelves and unearthed Gail Levin’s “Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography.” The book is autographed by the author — I had gone to hear Ms. Levin read in a bookshop that is now gone — and dated from a time when I was still new to the city and knew it largely, romantically, as a sprawling Hopper painting filled with golden, melancholy light. In the book, Ms. Levin reported that an interviewer wrote that the diner was “based partly on an all-night coffee stand Hopper saw on Greenwich Avenue … ‘only more so,’” and that Hopper himself said: “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”
Partly. More so. Simplified. The hidden truth became clearer. The diner began to fade. And then I saw it — on every triangular corner, in the candy shop’s cornice and the newsstand’s advertisement for 5-cent cigars, in the bakery’s curved window and the liquor store’s ghostly wedge, in the dark bricks that loom in the background of every Village street.
Over the past years, I’ve watched bakeries, luncheonettes, cobbler shops and much more come tumbling down at an alarming rate, making space for condos and office towers. Now the discovery that the “Nighthawks” diner never existed, except as a collage inside Hopper’s imagination, feels like yet another terrible demolition, though no bricks have fallen.
I’ve come to appreciate Moss’ blog–it’s a regular stop for me–but I don’t share his disappointment here because I think an artist’s natural inclination is to combine his (or her) imagination with what they see in real life. Once it becomes a picture, on the canvas, it has its own rules, and isn’t meant to be a document like a photograph. And this picture gets at one of Hopper’s most compelling (and enduring) themes–“the lonliness of the big city.”
When I look at the painting, actually, my eye always goes across the street to the empty store front on the left-hand side of the canvas, the triangle-shape of green in the middle window above that store. I love how it gives balance to the scene inside the diner. It is an empty space but sturdy and sure.