Over the years, the art of Edward Hopper (1882-1967) has become a bit too easy to like. His paintings have been referenced in everything from social media memes to “The Simpsons” cartoons, and his work is now so familiar that it can be hard to truly appreciate how disquieting it often is. Fortunately, the exhibition “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel,” which just opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, does an excellent job of allowing Hopper to take us to places that are often ambiguous, unsettling, and perhaps a tad dangerous.
Educationally speaking, Hopper came out of, but refused to be formally associated with, the “Ashcan School” of American Realism at the turn of the previous century. Artists such as Robert Henri (1865-1929) and George Bellows (1882-1925) rejected the smooth, sophisticated work of contemporaries such as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), in favor of more gritty representations of life as they observed it in the dirty streets of old New York.
Although he studied under and learned a great deal from Henri, once Hopper embarked upon his own career, he chose to keep to himself, preferring to develop his own style in his own way. Thus his work stayed relatively consistent for decades, even as other artistic styles came in and out of fashion.
The Lives of Others
The sense of timelessness one often gets when looking at a Hopper may be partly due to the fact that his paintings have inspired moviemakers for generations. In “House at Dusk” (1935), from the VMFA’s permanent collection, we’re reminded of an unpleasant subject in many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and it’s one Hopper turns to again and again: voyeurism. Like Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Rear Window,” we can’t help but be curious about what the neighbors are up to over there.
Yet even if we’ve always wanted to meet Mrs. Thorwald, in this canvas Hopper reminds us that just as we observe others, it’s likely that we’re also being observed ourselves. Perhaps someone is peering at us from that darkened room across the way, where we can only see part of a glowing lamp through the half-drawn curtains, or perhaps they’re staring up at our window from the shadowy entrance to the wooded park located at the top of the steps.
Hopper takes us in for an even closer look at the lives of others in “Room in New York” (1932), on loan from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A young couple is shown in the living room of what may be an apartment-hotel, probably in the same Greenwich Village neighborhood where Hopper lived.
The man is seated in an armchair hunched over a newspaper, while the woman idly fingers a single key on the piano. One can’t help but feel as though something is off here, but what?
Note that the woman is wearing a sleeveless evening gown, cut close to her body to show off her figure, and which ties up in a pair of ribbons over her shoulders. She’s even removed the potted plant or vase of flowers that normally sits on the round table atop the doily — notice how Hopper suggests the detail of the ivory lace using only a minimal amount of darker color applied with a few tiny brushstrokes — so he can have an unobstructed view of her.
Yet despite her efforts, it seems as though he couldn’t care less. There’s an overwhelming temptation to shout at the man through the window, “What’s wrong with you?”
Hopper Evokes Unanswered Questions
Although entering a Hopper painting and having a poke about in other people’s business is obviously impossible, a particular highlight of the VMFA show may be the next best thing: a full-scale recreation of the room depicted in Hopper’s “Western Motel” (1957) from Yale. What’s more, very lucky early registrants were able to book an overnight stay at the VMFA inside the room itself. (I did attempt to register, but it sold out almost immediately.) Just behind the wall where “Western Motel” is hanging is a beautifully lit, near-perfect facsimile of the motel room shown in Hopper’s painting, from the sleigh bed to the pair of brass gooseneck lamps on the bedside tables.
As to the painting that inspired the room, neither it nor its title tells us anything about what we’re to make of this scene. Is Hopper depicting a romantic getaway, an illicit noonday tryst, or simply the portrait of a woman on the road to or from something? Has she just arrived, or is she getting ready to leave? Is she on her own, or is the viewer standing in the shoes of her companion, or perhaps those of a chambermaid?
A similarly ambiguous narrative unfolds in “Hotel Lobby” (1943), from the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, where the exhibition heads after its Richmond run ends. Here we see an older man and woman, as well as a young woman, in a hotel lobby.
There’s nothing to indicate where it’s located, but my guess would be that it, too, is somewhere out West, perhaps in California, based on what looks to be an Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) landscape painting of Yosemite hanging over the older woman’s head. Like the room in “Western Motel,” the VMFA has made a partial recreation of the lobby in the picture so visitors can get a sense of the sight lines and lighting effects Hopper plays with on canvas.
Here again, Hopper invites us to construct our own stories, but we can piece together some clues from a few of the details. Notice that the older woman sits upright, wears a fur coat, and keeps her knees and feet together, while the hem of her dress is pulled down over her knees. She’s wearing a somewhat martial-looking hat, not only because she has either just come in or is about to go out, but also because she’s in a public place.
We forget today that, for centuries, a lady never went out in public without some kind of head covering, and the public lobby of a hotel was most definitely considered a public space. The older woman, then, represents respectable society.
The young woman, on the other hand, is a more ambiguous figure. She is hatless despite being in public, and we might deduce from her rather unnatural shade of blonde that she peroxides her hair so she can look more like the Hollywood starlets she reads about in magazines. She wears open-toed kitten heels with ankle straps and languidly stretches out her legs to cross her ankles, thereby exposing both her toes and her knees.
Hopper has placed the older man in this scene in a perilous position: If he’s not careful, he’ll react to those knees, and his formidable-looking wife in that cavalier officer’s hat will see him do so, and then, well, good luck to you, sir.
It was interesting to see that, in one of several preparatory drawings for this painting shown alongside it in the VMFA exhibition, the figure of the young woman was originally supposed to look much more like a teenager, complete with hair ribbon and sweater vest, and not like an off-duty showgirl. One wonders whether Hopper reconsidered the potential effect of suggesting a pairing between a girl who was still in school with a man old enough to be her grandfather. Perhaps he decided to age the young woman in the final picture and make her attractions more obvious, so as not to overly confuse the viewer.
The Utterly Confusing ‘People in the Sun’
On the other hand, a late Hopper work in the show, and certainly one of his best-known canvases, proves to be nothing but confusing. “People in the Sun” (1960) brings together many of the quintessential elements of Hopper’s style into a kind of final flowering of totally ambiguous narrative.
A group of respectably dressed people are shown sitting on deck chairs outside what we presume to be a hotel. Everyone is soaking up the sun, but no one seems to be having a particularly good time doing so. It’s almost as if the younger man reading a book is sheltering himself behind a group of extras between takes on a film set.
“It has no atmosphere but psychological atmosphere,” wrote novelist John Updike about this picture in his 2005 essay collection, “Still Looking.” “[T]he people, dressed for a luncheon party, seem to be on the deck of a boat without a glimpse of water, and, placed all on the left side of the canvas, appear to be sliding toward the sun.”
Updike’s analogy is certainly on point, if we choose to read the Western mountains in the distance as ocean waves, but even if we take a more literal path toward trying to understand this picture, we end up hopelessly lost. None of these people are interested in each other, nor are they interested in us, and they aren’t doing much of anything at all. So why should we be interested in looking at them?
Once again, we’re left where we began with Hopper’s art. His images raise plenty of questions, but there aren’t any hard-and-fast answers. Hopper rarely sheds any light on the subjects in his figural paintings, not even when he shows them in the brightest of sunshine.
In fact, as this exhibition makes clear, Hopper never fails to draw out something just a bit shadowy from his figures, his landscapes, and those who view his work with a more careful, critical gaze. It’s what makes him one of the most unique, interesting American artists of the 20th century.
“Edward Hopper and the American Hotel” is at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond through Feb. 23. After that, it will travel to the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields from June 6 to Sept. 13.