Last week, over the course of a few hours, I felt my life slowly taking on the colors and moods of an Edward Hopper painting. It’s happened to me before — in those uncanny minutes after I’ve let myself in to unfamiliar hotel rooms in unfamiliar cities. It may have happened to you.
What made it strange was that I was on my way to see “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel,” a magnificent exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
My plan was to drive from Washington in the evening, stay in a bed-and-breakfast a few blocks from the museum and see the show the next day. I got to Richmond late, ordered a burger and a beer at a bar (not quite “Nighthawks,” but not so far off either), then drove to the bed-and-breakfast. The two entrances I tried were locked, so I called the number on the reservation email, and in less than a minute, someone was leading me up the stairs that opened onto my bedroom.
Strange feeling. The “Dream Suite,” it said on the door. Bedside lamp, floral sheets, cast-iron headboard, framed photo of the sun setting over the sea.
In the morning, I drifted into a communal space where the sun streamed in and an elderly couple sat planning their day. The woman was engrossed in maps and pamphlets (oh, the endless unspooling days of retirement!). The man was watching me slyly as I struggled with the coffee machine and the whereabouts of the milk.
I arrived at the museum just after it opened and walked into the show with a feeling both of relief and uncanny familiarity.
V.S. Naipaul, who traveled a lot, was clear about what he liked about hotels: “the temporariness, the mercenary services, the absence of responsibility, the anonymity, the scope for complaint.” But most people who stay regularly in hotels see them, I think, in a more ambivalent light.
Certainly Edward Hopper did, and it’s hard to overstate the influence that his distinctive vision of hotels had on America’s cultural imagination, not just in the visual arts, but also in short stories, novels, films and television.
The Richmond exhibition was organized by Leo Mazow with Sarah Powers, and is the first to home in on a subject that was, you feel intuitively, of central importance to the career and sensibility of this great 20th-century American artist …