Edward Hopper Drawing for Nighthawks 1941-1942
Study for “Nighthawks” (1941 or 1942)

It’s not just any diner, of course. The coffee shop depicted in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is the most celebrated in American art history, and a new exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, Hopper Drawing, explores the creative process of an artist whose singular style made an indelible impression across a broad spectrum of the visual arts.

Nighthawks – which draws crowds as enthusiastic as any for the Mona Lisa at the Louvre when it’s on tour – exhorts the viewer to devise a multitude of potential backstories for the tableau of characters set amidst its moody isolation. Where the luncheonette was actually located has long been an intriguing question, but the general agreement now is that it was probably a synthesis of the real and imagined. It’s ironic that one of the great beauties of the painting, and so many other Hopper pieces — their exquisite sense of melancholy – was downplayed by the artist himself: “The loneliness thing is overdone,” he once said.

I’ll disagree.  The “loneliness thing” is exactly what draws one inside the world of Hopper, where his “Nighthawks” inhabit only a small corner. Those citizens of the night are pretty hard to forget, but so are the metaphoric shadows that presage the dark in such works as Early Sunday Morning and Morning in a City.

Hopper Drawing includes over 2,500 pieces donated by his widow, Josephine, to the Whitney, many never before seen by the public, and as seen in the sketch for Nighthawks seen at top, provide a fascinating window into the genesis of some of the most evocative works to be found in the modern American art landscape. (The exhibition runs through October 6.)

A corner of the night: “Nighthawks” (1942)