Famous painting of Phillies with two men in hats and a woman in a red dress at the counter and the server, in black and white.

Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper, in black and white.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Americans faced great uncertainty. The world was at war. Their safety was not assured. One of the most famous paintings of all time was completed soon after, by an American artist just a little older than Dickies From Gunton: Canadian Brothers in Two World Wars.

From the dark and quiet street, we look into a coffee shop called Phillies to see two men and a woman seated at the coffee shop counter, the server behind it. One man is seated alone, his back to us, with a drink in his hand and a newspaper under his arm. The other man and a red-haired woman sit beside each other but do not interact. He holds an unlit cigarette. The server, with two big silver urns behind him, is staring beyond them as he works.

The men wear suit jackets and fedoras. They keep their hats on despite the etiquette of the time- to remove your hat in restaurants and coffee shops. The woman is a redhead. None of the faces are famous. These are ordinary people in this quiet moment, under fluorescent lights behind glass in the quiet night.

In early 1942, when the painting was completed, the artist’s home town of New York, like many cities, was under blackout. It was an ominous time. Canada had just fought its first battle of the Second World War, to defend Hong Kong. The men from the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were defeated and had surrendered on Christmas Day. In early 1942, many families including the Dickies were still waiting for news of their loved ones’ fates.

And yet, the image is timeless. It was famously re-created by artist, Gottfried Helnwein as Boulevard of Broken Dreams, with the ordinary people replaced with dead pop culture icons James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis working behind the counter. The moment was captured in a song called Boulevard of Broken Dreams by the band, Green Day. More recently, reference to the painting has appeared in many TV shows including the Simpsons, That 70s Show, and Shameless.

The coffee shop gathering of 1950s celebrities who met tragic fates may be more well-known in recent years, but its inspiration, was the original. There is something about that haunting and powerful image, created during the uncertain days of the Second World War, that has endured.

The painting is Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper.