Learn English – Let’s invent a story about the people in this painting – Nighthawks

I love creating a class around a painting.  It’s easy to do.  You can describe what the picture is about. You can learn something about the artist. AND, most important, you can use your imagination to create the ‘back stories’ of the people.


Hey there. Have you ever seen this painting? The artist is Edward Hopper and he painted it in 1942. I don’t think he ever imagined what other artwork it would inspire.

(Intro: English without Fear where you can learn to speak English naturally, through listening to stories.)

So, what is the painting about? It’s of a cheap restaurant that we call a diner. A diner is a place that you can go and get something to eat and drink, not fancy. And there’s usually a counter where you can sit at stools, and it’s not a table, but they call it a counter. 

In this diner, we don’t see any tables. We just see four individuals, three sitting at the counter and one older boy, young man dressed in white, behind the counter. He is ‘working the counter’, as they say. When people come in, they sit down and he takes their order, what they want to eat, what they want to drink. Then he passes the order to the kitchen. They prepare the food, the drinks, and he gives them to the clients. 

This diner was actually inspired by a real restaurant in New York City where Edward Hopper grew up.

Who are these people? Well, there’s the young man behind the counter, dressed in white. But then we see a man and a woman sitting together and then another man sitting by himself. What time of day is it? It’s nighttime. The name of the painting is Nighthawks

Now ‘Nighthawks’ is an interesting title. I read in Wikipedia that if you look closely at the man who was sitting next to the woman, if you look at his nose, his nose is like the beak of a bird called a nighthawk. Nighthawk is also connected with a phrase that we use, ‘night owl.’ What is a night owl? Well, you know that an owl is a type of bird that is awake at night. And people who are night owls are people who stay up really late at night. This is a nighttime scene. The diner, the restaurant is not crowded, only three customers. So, they are night owls. And the painter who painted in 1942, entitled it, ‘Nighthawks’. 

What are they eating? What are they drinking? Well, the woman in red, who’s dressed very nicely, she has a cup of coffee. The man to her right, her right, is dressed in a suit with a hat, which was normal for the 1940s. He has a cup of coffee and he has a cigarette, no food. The man by himself, we only see his back. We don’t see anything else about what he looks like, but we see him with a cup of coffee, as well.

Who do you think they are? Why are they there? It’s not for the food. They’re not eating. I imagine, my guess is, that the woman and the man are not a couple, but they know each other. They’re talking or they look like they have been talking. And they’re talking with the server, the man in white. And I think they know each other, but I don’t think they’re a couple.

I imagine that maybe they have broken up with their partner, both of them, and they’re sharing that. I don’t know why they are out this late.  Maybe the woman is in Broadway or maybe she is in a musical, an actress. I don’t know.

I had an idea about the man, whose back we see, that’s all we see. So, he’s a mystery man and it’s dark.  Maybe he just got fired from a job. Maybe he is a salesman who travels around and maybe he came back from a sales trip without any, or without many sales, and maybe he just got fired. What does it mean to be fired? It means when your boss says: “Leave, we don’t want you anymore. You cannot work here anymore!” 

Maybe he stopped at the cafe, at the diner, before going home to tell his wife. Who knows? That’s what I imagined.

What’s interesting about this painting is that it has captured the imagination of others. There is a Simpsons version. Look at this picture. Who are the Simpsons? The Simpsons are a cartoon American family with a stupid father, a mother, a (an) older brother named Bart, Bart Simpson, and his older sister, Lisa and a little baby girl. 

Another version of Nighthawks has Santa Claus and his reindeer sitting at the counter after they have delivered presents. And then I found one with ducks about to enter into the cafe. Interesting, interesting. 

But what about you? What do you think, who do you think that people are? How do you imagine their stories? If you have an idea, leave me a comment. And remember if you would like the words, the transcript for today’s episode. Just go to my website, www.englishwithoutfear.com.

Well, this is Maria from English without Fear. Talk to you next time.

(Outro: Thanks for watching. For questions or comments, here’s my email.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *