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Edward Hopper Exhibit Evokes Isolation and Solitude During Mid-20th Century

Western Motel Recreationi
The VMFA recreated Edward Hopper's 1957 painting "Western Motel" with painstaking detail by using diary descriptions written by Hopper's wife, Jo. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

“Edward Hopper and the American Hotel,” is a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The show allows visitors to step inside the world of Hopper’s paintings: a prosperous but lonely Mid-20th Century America.  

One of the first rooms you enter into in the new “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel” exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a recreation of a 1940s hotel lobby. Three slate gray easy chairs line a wood paneled wall. The check in desk is a deep mahogany. But it’s the long green stripe that pulls you in. 

“That green stripe is pivotal in terms of moving not just people through a lobby but moving our eye throughout the space,” said Curator Sarah Powers.

This three-dimensional space allows visitors to step into the world of Edward Hopper near the end of World War II. It’s based on his 1943 painting called “Hotel Lobby,” which features an older couple dressed for a night out and a younger woman who sits alone, reading a book. The clerk is partially visible behind the counter. The painting touches on one of the fundamental aspects of a hotel, says Powers, in that it’s a sort of "quasi public yet private space."

Hotel Lobby Recreation
The VMFA made two, three dimensional spaces. This is "Hotel Lobby." The check-in desk sits at the end of the green stripe. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

The public space that’s filled with people in quiet contemplation is reminiscent of Hopper’s most famous work, “Nighthawks,” which features three solitary figures holding court in a late night diner. For viewers hoping to see this painting, they’re out of luck.

“No, it doesn’t have a hotel. It’s a counter in a diner. If it had been a diner in a hotel or across from a hotel, we might have been lucky,” said VMFA Director Alex Nyerges. 

But what the exhibition does have is a deep dive into Hopper’s view of how a largely white, privileged class traveled in late 1940s and 50s, staying at hotels and motels that dotted the highways.

“But they’re all composites of places he’s seen, places he stayed overnight. A little of this, a little of that. And that’s different than Thomas Hart Benton, or O’Keefe, or Jackson Pollack or anyone like that,” said Curator Leo Mazow.

Hopper took a mathematical approach to his work, according to Jennifer Patton, Executive Director of the Hopper House Museum in Nyack, New York. As a boy growing up there, Patton said he’d carve perfect wood replicas of boats he’d see sailing along the river.

Hopper kept many notebooks that were filled with sketches of anatomy, science, and zoology that Patton said almost makes his work look like Da Vinci. "It’s like he a scientist as well. Very precise, very mathematical,” she said.

Sketch of Hotel Lobby
Musician Bruce Hornsby and his wife Kathy lent six Hopper sketches from their personal collection. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

In notebooks and on scraps of paper Hopper sketched out his work. Many of these sketches flank the paintings. This allows viewers to see a work in progress. Six of these drawings were loaned to the VMFA by musician Bruce Hornsby and his wife Kathy. 

“We have studies in pencil, charcoal and watercolors that we’ve collected over the years,” said Kathy Hornsby. 

Hornsby says they’ve read practically every book on Hopper and that many times, they’d try to compare the drawings to the paintings. The show at the VMFA is the first time they’ve been able to see the works side by side. 

Early in his career, Hopper illustrated hotel trade and travel magazines, many of which are on display. However, illustrating was not something he enjoyed. 

“If you were an artist and you needed to make money you would study illustration if you could stand it, which Hopper didn’t love it,” said Patton, who adds that his work in those trade magazines did influence the art he produced later. 

Many of Hopper’s hotel paintings suggest moments of solitude, where people look pensively out windows. In several of Hopper’s hotel and motel work, he incorporates what Powers calls a “vocabulary of props” that help us understand the interior is not quite a home, that the inhabitants are transient. 

For instance, in his 1931 work “Hotel Room,” there is a dresser, suitcases, and a window with light streaming in. On the edge of the bed sits a woman reading a railroad timetable. 

“She's clearly maybe, having a moment of rest on her travels and contemplating the next leg of her journey,” says Powers.  

Hopper’s wife Josephine or “Jo” was also an artist, her work shown with pieces by Picasso and Man Ray. After marrying Edward, she modeled for his paintings and organized their trips across the country. Several of of her diaries are on display at the VMFA exhibit, documents that the VMFA relied heavily on when designing the three-dimensional spaces.

Western Motel
Hopper and his wife Jo stayed in one motel in El Paso, Texas for weeks. Curator Leo Mazow believes this painting was from that stay. (Photo Crixell Mattews/VPM)

Hopper rarely painted his subjects looking at the viewer, except in the 1957 painting “Western Motel.”  Here again, Jo was the model. Curator Sarah Powers said Hopper presented "a much more self assured, confident woman, a much more modern woman than we see in the earlier paintings.”

The VMFA also developed “Western Motel” into a three-dimensional space in the exhibit. 

“Everything from the gooseneck lamps to the color of the green lime carpet, to the green color of the walls, the golden color of the curtains, the globe light on the ceiling, has all been replicated for the viewer,” said Powers.

The VMFA offered packages for $150-$500 for people to stay overnight in the recreated hotel rooms, selling out quickly. 

Like Monet was known for water lilies and van Gogh, for sunflowers, Mazow says Hopper will always be associated with the American Hotel, where he captured the human emotions of loneliness and isolation in spaces that gave the illusion of home. 

 "At the end of the day, this exhibition proposes that the metaphor of a hotel, a temporary thing banked on the illusion of looking like feeling like home serving multiple individuals," said Mazow. "Hopper would have never stated this at this way, but I think at the end of this exhibition you'll think that Hopper treats hotels and paintings a lot alike, as impermanent things."

"Edward Hopper and the American Hotel" continues at the VMFA through February 23, 2020

*We should disclose that the VMFA is a sponsor of VPM.