Tarquinius W. Peterson

Tarquinius W. Peterson’s Fantastical Guide to: Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Welcome to Tarquinius W. Peterson’s Fantastical Guide to the World of Art.

This week we are uncovering …

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942

An Edward Hopper, not Dennis Hopper as mentioned last week (he was six-years-old when Edward painted Nighthawks), I don’t know who mentioned Dennis, he’s an actor for crying out …

So, Edward, and the Nighthawks.

To get us started, we asked two questions last week:

  • Who are these people?
  • Why is there no door?

It’s a known fact that the portrayed café customers and staff are unemployed actors, all are merrily going about their business (ah, I see where a possible Dennis Hopper connection comes in), but how did everyone else get in? It’s not obvious, particularly with no entrance door from the street. A question on the cracked lips of many aged art critics.

To answer this, I’m drawn to a dream once had sitting in the Nighthawks café speaking to Josephine Nivison, Edward Hopper’s wife. She told me:

‘Eddie painted a door on the left of the painting, beautiful glass and curved like the other corner window, but in a fit of rage I took a saw to it and hacked it off.’

Dumbfounded I sat in silence and we finished our mint-chocolate malt shakes. Then she piped up again:

‘I sawed the door off because an advertising deal fell through. Phillies Cigars agreed a $50 dollar deal to have their billboard over the café, which was brilliant. National Biscuit Company [Nabisco] however, reneged on a deal after Eddie had painted their Ritz Crackers logos everywhere on the entrance door and the “Open and Closed” sign. It would have taken him ages to repaint, so I thought sod it and cut it off. Cheesy fries, Tarquin?’

The dream became messy following my answer.

In 1942 the world fought its second war. The Americans were enjoying life after the thirties depression and didn’t want to sail off to fight the Nazis. Why sail away when they could monetize on advertising in the new reinvigorated laissez-faire society.

Josephine and Eddie failed in their attempts to ‘sell’ more ad space on Nighthawks. Borden’s household glue: Elmer’s Glue-All, was to appear on a shop over the street, Edward sketched several giant “Elmer the Bull” images as window decorations, but a conversation with his stalwart vegetarian friend John Harvey Kellogg [of cornflakes fame] convinced him otherwise.

Despite setbacks, the painting directed itself on a path to success. Phillies delighted in the outcome, their product placement exists to today and they didn’t have to renew any contract, thousands of visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago, where the painting now hangs, see their cigars every year.

The mass of advertising proposals on the café, and shops opposite, were in motion. Josephine had paperwork drawn up with several advertisers, but the Institute made the Hopper’s an offer they couldn’t refuse: $3,000. Minus taxes and costs that came to $1,971, still a nice payload in the 1940s. The deals for the other ads fell through and the shops remained like brand new premises awaiting sale, fortunately without agents’s details in the window.

With Phillies cigars gaining prominence with their ROI, others jumped on the coffee shop trolley. A great deal of artists and authors were and are still touched by Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. The despairing mood of the painting has attracted interest within creative departments of the music, theatre, TV, and the film industries.

Famous film director Ridley Scott first encountered Edward Hopper when he found a collection of the artist’s initial sketches for ‘Night Hawks’, hidden in a box of old issues of Der Spiegel at his local carboot sale in Middlesborough. These sketches included countless advertising mockups for billboard’s and variations on window ads. They, and Hopper’s mood, later influenced the flickering neon advertising backdrops of future Los Angeles street scenes in the film Blade Runner.

Undeterred by media interest, a successful conclusion never arrived to explain absence of an entrance doorway. Several critics suggested the doorway was best placed in the corner, but Hopper struggled to “do 3D curves” and omitted it. Many think the door was removed because it obscured the central customer’s face; although, the removal resulted in an unfeasibly large sheet of glass.

Either way, the great T.W. Peterson, although disregarding the mullion of the curved window not lining through with the stall-riser panel, and the high square footage of glazing, attempted to prove existence of a removed segment of the painting.

With permission of the Art Institute of Chicago, I examined Edward Hopper’s original masterpiece in great depth. Measurements are around three by five foot, a fair sized canvas, which needed two people to handle.

Calling on Vinny, the Institute’s security officer, for added muscle, corners of the cheap pine frame were grabbed and the canvas turned. It showed plenty of tape and staples, but of more importance the frame’s centre rail wasn’t centred. Josephine’s truth revealed itself in a side-length of fashioned timber nailed between top and bottom rails; the original side rail she once hacked-off. The frayed canvas edge showed signs of rough cutting and there, beneath rusty staples, part-image of a timber door frame with the unmistakable colours and pattern of Nabisco crackers.

Proof that the original canvas had been longer and that a separate entrance door existed!

Thanks to one of the world’s leading biscuit brands, one of America’s most iconic paintings had been truncated by sixteen and two third percent due to a failed advertising deal.

The consequences on the painting, apart from the reduction in revenue and ‘real life’ colours to the other shopfront elevations, is the covering up of the policeman. You may ask …

‘What policeman?’


‘What relevance does he have to do with art critique?’

Edward T.J. Hopper (later adopted by James T. Kirk as T.J. Hooker) wanted to be a policeman as a young boy, but later changed his mind after partaking in too many drunken and drug-crazed art college parties. It is no surprise then that in the second window from the left, above the shopfronts, is the ghost of a painted out uniformed cop on stakeout duty. Shown along with the cop’s paper bag with coffee and sandwich takeout [note: the removed diner logo].

Back to my dream with chips and cheese and Edward Hopper’s wife. Ms Nivison alluded, while squishing handfuls of molten yellow goo, that another character approached the ‘later to be axed’ coffee shop doorway.

Which brings us back to the title ‘Nighthawks’. It is well accepted the terminology relates to the so-called late night coffee drinkers inhabiting the diner, further investigation of these actors-cum-artists models-cum-drug dealers unveiled more:

The guy with his back turned is a stooge in the scene, happy with his glass of milk, handgun concealed within his jacket pocket, ready for action should the need arise.

The guy with the cigarette is the hawker, the dealer, he doesn’t smoke, he can’t even hold a cigarette to save his life. Also, his nose is not like a hawk’s beak.

Critic Jean-Luc Cliffman once claimed the hawker was a wealthy owner of a falconry in the Catskills and over the years resembled his birds of prey; similar to a dog owner’s semblance. I don’t believe this was the case, certainly the owner of a big hooter, but a hawk, that’s too far off the birdseed.

The red-head broad is fiddling with a packet of grass, curious of its recreational effects. Many believe it to be a sandwich, few say that’s nonsensical because it’s a green coloured cellophane wrapped package and she doesn’t have a plate or serviette to hand.

The café supervisor is pretending to wash-up a glass in the under-counter sink, while keeping his eye on the (now blended-away) undercover police officer in the first floor window.

These characters assume their roles, but do not gel together as they once did earlier in the paintings history.

The last ‘nighthawk’ is the lost character. The mysterious person no longer in the scenario who got the chop when Josephine took a saw to hack of the failed Ritz Cracker door ads.

Commercialism aside, the missing feather of this artistic puzzle is not a nighthawk at all, he’s an everyday punter. Yes, they are night hawks, if the perspective taken illustrates simple lives of individuals in an all-night diner café.

Tarquinius W. Peterson goes deeper and further with the fantastical guide. Astonishingly, I can tell you our since eradicated feathered trilby wearer, who almost entered the joint that night, was a regular Johnny out to score a ganja fix.

Craving for marijuana in 1942, driven by success in the stock exchange, pushed the recreational sector into overkill, ahead of La Guardia Committee Report on New York’s marijuana problem released two years later. Sharp-suited regular Johnny needed his high and planned to buy from our fedora’d gentleman with the large nasal appendage; the late night drugs hawker, the Night Hawker.

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