Looking at language and the inner sensory experience through Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942)
Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is arguably one of the most iconic paintings in American art. The late-night scene of a few silent figures in a lit diner on a deserted street is not only hauntingly nostalgic of everyday American life, but also lullingly poignant. It has offered its viewers a moment of silent contemplation and reprieve from an ever-changing, bustling world since its debut in 1942.
The painting is commonly thought to evoke feelings of loneliness, solitude, emptiness and isolation, however Hopper himself denied that being his intention,
“I didn’t see it as particularly lonely. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”
– Edward Hopper
In fact, the more you look at the painting, the more you may realise that YOU are the one who is alone, standing in the dark street, on the outside looking in. The figures on the other hand are inside, together, in the warmth of the light, protectively sealed off from the world by a pane of glass. There is no door for us to enter, we can only turn the corner and continue into the unknown, darkness of the night skirting around the reflections of light on the pavement from inside.
Even though we are cut off from them, we are invited to ponder the lives of those characters inside. What is their story? Why are they there? Where have they come from? This curiosity implicates a desire to somehow become more intimate even with perfect strangers, and yet the smooth, cold surface of the glass reminds us that while we may look in, we will never completely know who they are.
It is a special kind of loneliness that is at once consoling in the knowledge that there will always remain some part of us that is sacred, untouchable to others, and heartbreaking in that we could never fully express our interior world to those on the outside, though we may try.
However destitute an image the painting is, there is also a subtle optimism. Considering that the painting was completed shortly after the attack in Pearl Harbour, at the height of WWII, an emphatic display of ordinary, everyday life, maybe even boredom, may well have offered a welcomed sanctuary in uncertain and frightening times. After all, it is the last light shining in the middle of the night on a dark street. Likewise, there is something touching in the fact that despite their apparent estrangement and solitude, they are alone together– a theme that seems to characterise Hopper’s hermetic life in the New York metropolis and his turbulent marriage to Josephine Nivison Hopper, rife with mutual domestic violence and attachment.
“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”
The term “loneliness” is too broad a word for this painting as each person that views it, and even the artist himself, experiences loneliness in such a distinct way as to render the word ultimately vague at best. Just as there is no way for us on the outside to know what the characters inside the diner are actually thinking, it may well be the case that there is no way to truly communicate our inner sensory experience through language alone. Even if we use language to connect our internal world with the external one, we rely on words to do it, which raises the question: is there a word for every thought and feeling?
The expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” is revealing of the limits of language to efficiently convey a range of complex ideas and meaning. It also hints at the inherent ineffability of our perceptual experiences. Being rendered speechless by a work of art, or any other experience for that matter, is an indication of the failure of language to adequately describe the variety, intensity and subtlety of what we experience through the senses. And yet these experiences can be so emotionally charged that we desire to communicate them in some way, despite the difficulty of putting it into words. It is simultaneously this desire and the lack of words at our disposal which create a sort of glass pane between our interior experience and the outward expression of it, where words merely allude to the richness of the experience.
“All sensory language is just a pale reflection of our sensory world; even the best writers and poets will never be able to communicate all of that which is perceivable.”-Bodo Winter, “Sensory Linguistics: Language, Perception and Metaphor”, pg. 38
However ineffable our perceptual experiences may be, there is a large amount of research that shows that some senses are more efficiently coded into language than others. Namely, what are termed the “distal senses” of sight and sound show more lexical differentiation than the “proximity senses” of touch, taste and smell. So much so that the respective end points of ineffability are sight, as the least, and smell, as the most. Researches have even deemed smell a “muted” sense as odours and aromas are generally easily recognisable but difficult to label.
In a hierarchy of the senses, it follows that our reliance on vision not only makes it perceptually dominate but also linguistically. This means that by being better able to articulate our visual perceptions of colour, shape, space and distance, the outer world is more easily scripted. By contrast, the non-spatial, interior world of taste and smell remains largely unutterable, not for lack of profundity but of language.
In a painting such as Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, the resounding silence of our interior sensory world is keenly felt and is a consoling reminder that we are nonetheless together in our solitude and isolation.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:
“Nighthawks, 1942 by Edward Hopper”. Edward Hopper, Paintings, Biography and Quotes, edwardhopper.net
Richman-Abdou, Kelly. “Unraveling the Emotional Depth of Edward Hopper’s Modern Masterpiece ‘Nighthawks’”. My Modern Met, 27 August, 2020, mymodernmet.com
Winter, Bodo. “Sensory Linguistics: Language, Perception and Metaphor”. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2019, books.google.it
Wood, Gaby. “Man and Muse”. The Guardian: The Observer, Art. 25 April, 2004, The Guardian: Man and Muse