Hotels have come a long way since Edward Hopper (1882–1967) and his wife, Jo, struck out on months-long road trips across America and Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s. Behind the wheel of their trusty Buick, the Hoppers became enthusiastic connoisseurs of temporary lodging in mid-century America: the rustic tourist camp, the modest tourist home, the family-friendly motor court, and the big-city hotel with its bright lights and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Together, they demonstrated what the exhibition curators call ponderously “hotel periodical consciousness”—Hopper using his early experience as an illustrator for hotel industry magazines to consider hotels as aesthetic objects and Jo keeping diaries informed by the style and format of dining guides and tourist literature. We can imagine the taciturn Hopper lurking around the property sketching, while the gregarious Jo was chatting with other hotel patrons and keeping mental notes for her own diaries and other personal writings.

Hopper’s hotel paintings are conventionally interpreted as illustrations of urban malaise, loneliness, and alienation. One such example, the well-known Room in New York (1932), is a mainstay for cover art of novels about modern isolation. A man in shirtsleeves leans forward reading the newspaper. Across the small room, a woman in a red frock rests on a piano with her left arm, striking a key with the index finger of her right hand. They might be an alienated couple, bored with each other and life in general—or it might just be a moment of quietude. Much about this painting, completed relatively early in his career, contains themes to which Hopper returned repeatedly: the nature of intimacy, the body in an interior space, and domestic aesthetics. There is also the idea of distance: the artist from the viewer, the artist from the subject, and a deliberate stepping away from the picturesque style that characterized Hopper’s earlier illustrative efforts.

Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932, Oil on canvas, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

What Hopper did retain from his illustration years was an appreciation for process. Numerous preparatory sketches and studies show him recording details such as measurements, light angles, and color values. One of his most complex works, Hotel Lobby (1943), is complemented by several such sketches as well as a neighboring gallery built as an exact replica of the painting. Hotel Lobby is a composite memory of elegantly appointed spaces through which all kinds of people passed with all sorts of expectations and aspirations. We can’t help but construct a narrative around Hopper’s figures—a well-dressed middle-aged couple and a young woman in a summery blue dress reading a book—much as we would in any public place. But there is also plenty of ambiguity in body language and clothing (covered knees, feet side by side for the older woman; shorter dress, legs crossed and extended for the younger woman)—and Hopper reminds us that a hotel lobby might be a place for perfectly innocent meetings or for not-so-innocent assignations.

Several of Hopper’s hotel-room scenes include a single female figure, either nude or wearing a slip or camisole set. A familiar repertoire of props often appears in these paintings: a ceramic ewer, a coat or suitcase, nondescript furniture, blinds, and the like. Hopper repeated these objects for their aesthetic value as well as the natural fact that they were present in virtually any hotel room. Since very little about these nudes is erotic or classically appealing, what then is the painter’s intent? Elusive as always, he could be intending voyeurism or moral critique, but it is just as likely that he is fixing in our minds the idea of “hotelness,” that is, a particular kind of material reality and behavior in a space associated with transience as well as a form of visual literacy that would have been relatively new in the post-war period, when Americans’ love of the automobile and the road was just getting started.

“Hotelness” takes a strange turn in the gallery featuring Western Motel (1957), which depicts a woman in dark red who looks directly at the viewer, a car and mountains visible through the window behind her. So placid as to be almost lifeless, the painting is enriched by Hopper’s exceptional handling of light and a suave color palette. The crowd in Richmond milling around the gallery was not, however, engaged in quiet contemplation of the art, but instead transfixed by the room behind glass next to it, recreated from Hopper’s painting in complete detail, down to the gooseneck lamp and battered suitcase. As the docent explained to delighted visitors, the room is available for overnight stays, at a rate considerably higher than those of 1957. One wonders what Edward Hopper would have made of having his art turned into a Marina Abramović–style spectacle.

Gallery view of “Edmund Hopper and the American Hotel” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

The standouts in the show are Hopper’s watercolors, most of which he did during road trips to Mexico. Surrounded by rugged mountains, red tile roofs, candy-colored stucco, decorative façades, and lush plant life, Hopper painted more expansively, his temperamental reticence freed by what the curators call “the tower effect,” referring to his high perch on the rooftops or towers above the Spanish colonial towns of Saltillo and Monterrey.

The artistic depiction of hotels was hardly exclusive to Hopper, and the exhibition provides much instructive context. The photographer Berenice Abbott and the painter John Sloan (Hopper’s friends) documented the declining state of hotels in New York’s Lafayette Square. Signs as symbols are examined in photographs by Walker Evans, paintings by Ed Ruscha and Stuart Davis, and a photorealist work by Robert Cottingham. The idiosyncrasies of intimacy are dissected in works by Joseph Cornell, David Hockney, and George Segal. And John Singer Sargent’s view of a hotel room corner, seen in watery green afternoon light, gives us one of art’s most remarkably disheveled Gladstone bags.

Hopper was a chronicler not of hotels but of “hotelness.” Post-war Americans finally had the time and disposable income needed to travel for the sake of travel, but the experience, Hopper seems to be saying, left them uncertain and perplexed. Wasn’t it all slightly absurd, to risk the open road, questionable food, and dubious accommodations, just to sleep in a strange room? Indeed, this sense of the absurd leads to the somewhat surprising possibility of Hopper the surrealist. The thwarting of conclusions, the pervasive silence, the stolid figure positioned in a receding perspective, doorways and furniture attended by a jumble of objects—who would expect a sort of American de Chirico to arrive in a 1954 Buick?

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 56
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