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There’s a quiet thrill to be had from being able to spot less-than-obvious references in popular media. Does anyone remember this crossover ad on Cartoon Network that featured Johnny Bravo talking about his whirlwind romance with Velma Dinkley (from Scooby-Doo)?

It’s set late at night in a lonely cafe , perched at the intersection of two dark, empty streets. Somehow, it wasn’t the sort of thing you usually found in cartoons, and there’s unquestionably something that was very memorable about the scene, because I still do remember it, after all these years. In fact, it immediately came to mind when I chanced upon the painting that inspired it: “Nighthawks”, by Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Nighthawks (1942), by Edward Hopper

The Cartoon Network version

“Nighthawks” is one of the most recognizable American paintings ever (here’s another one; you’ve almost certainly seen references to it, too, even if you never knew it) and it’s easy to see why. There’s a haunting sense of loneliness about it, but unlike the human figures in many paintings that sought to express the isolation that’s inevitably a part of modern urban life (see Mark Rothko’s “Subway Scene”, for example), the people here are real people, not just faceless creatures. You can actually imagine meeting the woman in the red dress, or ordering a drink from the waiter in a sailor’s uniform. And you can’t help asking yourself what the individual circumstances were that brought each of these people to this place.

“Nighthawks” was painted in 1942, almost immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour (which was on December 7th, 1941). It was a dark time for the United States, and this is reflected in the mood of the painting – it’s hard to tell whether any of the people there are interacting with one another at all. That’s probably how it often is after a tragedy – there doesn’t seem to be anything worth saying to anyone.


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