What: Edward Hopper’s 1942 masterpiece, Nighthawks:

For a more detailed view, go here.

Why: Hopper was the first visual artist to perceive what film had done to the viewing public’s eye. Nighthawks is an establishing shot, similar to what you would see over the credits of a film noir. In this case, it’s 3:45 a.m. in Greenwich Village, just past the point where people are awake because they want to be and just before the point when people are awake because they have to be. This hour, people are awake because that’s who they are. The counter-tender works the night shift because his day job at the newspaper plant let off six hours ago. The businessman has to catch the 5:15 to Camden, so going to sleep would be useless. The couple are catching the only time together they can before he goes home to his wife and kids, and she reconsiders what she’s done with her life. That’s possible, anyway. I made all that up, and I could make up a hundred other stories for Nighthawks.

Impact: If you had to list paintings by percentage of American-ness, Nighthawks would be at the top of the list. It makes sense that it lives in the heart of Chicago, as that suggests it belongs to all of us. As our most recognizable piece of art, it is often recreated (as in this scene from Pennies from Heaven, mimicked (as in this cel from The Simpsons), followed up (as in this scene from worth1000), and parodied (as in this amazing collection of reinterpretations).

Personal Connection: While at the Chicago Reporter, I worked one block from the Art Institute of Chicago. And so I often used my museum pass to have lunch there, and I made a point of seeing Nighthawks every month. I can’t say I noticed something new every time, but I got a different emotional reaction every time. Sometimes proud to be an American, sometimes wishing I had better things to do with my nights, sometimes happy I didn’t work in the food service industry. While my other favorite paintings reflect my playful personality, they don’t reflect me. Nighthawks does.

Other Contenders: Salvador Dalí’s constantly morphing The Hallucinogenic Toreador (he’s wearing a lime green tie); René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, which is not, under any circumstances, a pipe (unless it is); Claude Monet’s Japanese Bridge at Giverny (this one, anyway—he did a lot of them); M.C. Escher’s Reptiles, which is what all art would be like if puzzlemakers ruled the world.