Hopper chose to paint a scene located at a sharply-angled street-corner, rather than at one of New York's many right-angled intersections. This choice was not unusual for Hopper, who painted a number of other scenes of this kind of corner (see Office at Night (1940)). A sharp corner gave him the opportunity to display his subjects from a nearly frontal point of view, and also allowed him to display the dimly visible street scene behind the patrons. Hopper often painted scenes in which a part of the exterior view could be seen through two panes of glass. But the shape of the diner in Nighthawks, when seen from Hopper's chosen angle (which is also the point of view of a passer-by walking past on the sidewalk), allows this second glass surface to fill the entire centre of the painting. The further pane of glass forms a rhomboid, close to the center of the painting and recalling, with slight distortion, the shape of the entire canvas, and framing much of the action.
The back window serves as a background for all three customers, but not for the server. Its variance from the shape of the painting as a whole also hides a curious symmetry that would otherwise be obvious: The head of the customer who is sitting alone is at the precise center of the frame-within-a-frame (which is also the exact center of the painting as a whole). Although they sit around a bend in the counter, the heads of the couple are directly to his right, so that a horizontal line, drawn precisely halfway between the top and the bottom of the canvas, would bisect all three heads. The entire human element in the painting is therefore contained within the lower right-hand quarter of the canvas.
As Jo Hopper's journal entry notes, the brightest spot in the painting is the bit of bright ceiling close to the hidden fluorescent light that illuminates the interior. The ceiling is obviously of limited relevance to any narrative that might be unfolding among the customers below; this is Hopper's...
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