“It’s the road—that enters the eye and feeds a thirst.”

—J. Hopper, diary entry

Friday, Nov. 20, 1951



Lovers of travel, reading and art will find a lot to love in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ newest exhibition: “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel.” As the above diary entry by Edward Hopper’s wife, Josephine, illustrates, we Americans—between two world wars—were going places like never before.

A frequent traveler with his wife, Hopper did paintings that simultaneously are “sources for selective social history, and social history, in turn, [is] a framework for interpreting the paintings,” according to VMFA curator Leo G. Mazow in the exhibition’s comprehensive catalog. Social history includes hospitality services such as lodging, meals, luggage assistance and entertainment. It’s this dynamic surrounding travel that Mazow has explored in curating more than 60 paintings from world-class art museums and private lenders such as Grammy award-winning Virginia musician Bruce Hornsby and his wife, Kathy.

ANXIETY AND ALIENATION

“Hopper took the less heroic and monumentalized it,” VMFA director Alex Nyerges said at the exhibition’s media preview. “He saw value in the vernacular.” The “less heroic” vernacular included Hopper’s evoking—in commonplace subjects such as hotel rooms—suggestions of personal anxiety, alienation and depression. Many critics have covered those themes from a biographical perspective of Hopper’s troubled youth, but not through an analysis of his travel-related paintings.

In viewing Hopper’s work in this exhibition, I could see why—despite the “anxious” emotions suggested—Hopper remains one of the United States’ most popular artists. Perhaps this speaks to our frequent tendency to hold two opposing ideas at the same time, whether out of convenience or for the aesthetic appeal we derive from it. Hopper’s work in these travel-related paintings and sketches is a reflection of tourism as both impersonal and intimate. A traveler’s transient home on the road sometimes encompasses personal moments or memories that carry their own sense of permanency. Like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” we sometimes find ourselves relying on the kindness of strangers.

PROSAIC TO POETIC

As travelers, we know the hours spent waiting by windows—in hotel rooms and lobbies or at train stations, restaurants and diners—but we might intuit that travel carries what Mazow calls “the promise and complications of American mobility in general, as well as the slippage between prosaic and poetic themes.”

A woman reading in her lingerie in “Hotel Room” (1931)—or sitting fully attired, ready to go, by a hotel window with a car waiting outside in “Western Motel” (1957). A comfortable parlor with a piano evokes the silence and disengagement of urban hotels in “Room in New York” (1932). A man sits with cheerless expression next to an open book on a hotel bed with a woman asleep behind him in “Excursion into Philosophy” (1959), or a couple in a dimly lit room are separately occupied by his newspaper reading and her fingering on the piano in “Hotel by a Railroad” (1952).

The exhibition includes extra paintings, drawings and illustrations by Hopper, as well as works by renowned artists such as Richard Caton Woodville, John Singer Sargent, Charles Demuth, Reginald Marsh, Edward Ruscha and Cindy Sherman.

In a cynical age when we question any art that entices us to do business with an industry, it’s interesting to note that by 1934, the American hotel had itself become a work of art—with intricate wallpaper, carpets, murals, French doors, and, as shown in “Hotel Lobby” (1945), mahogany wainscoting and Ionic fluted columns.

As part of the show, the museum booked 46 overnight stays (ranging from $150-$500) in a room inspired by Hopper’s painting “Western Motel,” which shows a woman in a motel room with a red bed, a red chair and, seen through the window, a Buick sedan parked outside—which was similar to one the Hoppers owned—and a view of the mountains. Within a day of going on sale, most of the 140 packages had been sold.

Even if we’re not one of the lucky overnight guests in the Hopper room, the beauty of Hopper’s work is that he “invites us to step inside a hotel room, into these private, sacrosanct spaces,” Mazow said.

Just as Norman Rockwell was pooh-poohed during his lifetime for being a commercial artist and illustrator, Edward Hopper was often passed over as a painter of fine art because of his past as an illustrator—the exhibit includes covers from “Travel Management” and “Tavern Tips” magazines. Perhaps this exhibition will make us more comfortable with an intertwined work-and-art life.

Martha Steger is a Midlothian-based freelance writer.

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