Edward Hopper: The Escape Artist

While many of us think about packing our bags for summer vacation, a group of masterpieces will be hitting the road to Indianapolis for an exhibition dealing with this very concept: American travel.  Edward Hopper and the American Hotel is coming to the IMA at Newfields from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). Guests will have the opportunity to explore—through spectacular artworks—how the career of iconic American painter Edward Hopper was shaped by his fascination with hotels, motels, and other lodging spaces of American popular travel culture. 

The senses of anonymity, unease, and transience that keen-eyed guests so often identify in  Hotel Lobby are characteristic of Hopper’s work. Placing his brooding hotel figures in the context of American culture, however, reveals they were also part of a larger phenomenon. Hotel experiences were common metaphors for modern 20th-century life as its inhabitants grappled with it, and appeared with some regularity in movies and novels (with 1941 film noir  The  Maltese Falcon being perhaps the most enduring of these). With these artworks, Hopper was   participating in this larger “hotel consciousness.”

Hopper’s immersion in hotel culture has roots in his years as a commercial illustrator, when he created 23 covers for the trade magazines Hotel Management and Tavern Topics. Later in his career, he was a seasoned traveler who often took to the road with his wife, fellow painter Josephine “Jo” Nivison Hopper, who managed “Ed’s” career at the expense of her own. The pair crisscrossed the continent in their beloved Buick while Jo recorded observations on temporary lodgings everywhere from beach houses in Massachusetts to motels in Georgia and hotels in northeast Mexico. Jo’s diaries vividly describe some of their lodgings and are invaluable to understanding how the Hoppers traveled.

A diary excerpt from December 8, 1952: “Several motels stretched straight out like a tense caterpillar, head with office facing road and body at perpendicular to it. Cars meant to stay outside windows of rooms, one after the other like vertebrae.”

Three diaries will be on view in the exhibition along with some of the postcards the Hoppers sent back home.

The influence of hotels on Edward Hopper’s work will also be shown through some large watercolors (most painted from the windows and roofs of hotels), a few etchings, and a selection of his hospitality trade magazine covers. Enriching and contextualizing these works will be paintings, sculpture, and photographs by other important American artists who were inspired by hotel culture over time. These include Richard Caton Woodville’s 1848 painting War News from Mexico and Susan Worsham’s 2009 photograph Marine, Hotel Near Airport, Richmond, VA.

A traveling exhibition always looks and feels differently at each museum it visits. Taking Dr. Mazow’s deep research into Hopper’s relationship with hotel culture—and the artworks that he and his VMFA team assembled—the IMA at Newfields will use its own exhibition design and twists on interpretive elements.

One element will round out the narrative of 20th-century   travel in the exhibition. Although Hopper has historically been interpreted as an “all-American” painter, it is important to acknowledge that his oeuvre represents a tiny slice of the American experience. He drew on a boom in travel and hospitality culture, but Americans participated in this boom in different ways depending on their gender, race, and wealth. Personal stories throughout the exhibition will elaborate on the experiences that others had within this larger cultural phenomenon. 

To further bring guests into this time and place, some of the architectural design elements from hotels that Hopper used to stage his paintings will be recreated as immersive spaces within exhibition galleries (although, unlike the VMFA, we will not be offering overnight stays).

To immerse yourself in the shared world of 20th-century   art and travel, please join us for  Edward Hopper and the American Hotel.