We don’t know if he was starving or not, but at one point in his illustrious career, globally recognized artist Edward Hopper created a series of front covers for Hotel Management that are now at the core of an exhibition of his work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
Through Feb. 23, “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel” puts a spotlight on the American Realist’s capture of moments in time at travel destinations via paintings, drawings and illustrations. According to the exhibit’s curator, Leo Mazow, the VMFA’s Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art, “Those [HM] covers are really the foundation of this exhibition in general. Absolutely.”
Many of the 18 known Hopper HM front covers—the VMFA has eight on display—were done in the mid-1920s when the magazine was produced by Ahrens Publishing Co. in New York and available for $3 per year or 25 cents per copy. For the most part, the covers depict one or more elegant couples enjoying an activity such as dancing, dining and boating set against a created hotel background, and are thematically aligned with the month they were published. Mazow said Hopper used actual hotels—Ohio’s Cincinnatian Hotel and New York’s Mohonk Mountain House—as inspiration on two of the covers. The illustrations’ light colors and energetic activities are a distinct departure from Hopper’s more-somber famous works, such as “Automat” or the iconic “Nighthawks,” although in true Hopper form, no one on the HM covers appears particularly engaged with another.
“Hotel Management has a long history of outstanding covers,” said Mazow. “I don’t know how many other hotel trade magazines you’ve seen from the 1920s and ’30s, but they ain’t Hotel Management. There was one that was the competition for Hotel Management called Hotel Monthly. It’s just the same kind of plump dude looking over a table of contents on every single cover.”
Mazow previously served as a tenured art history professor at the University of Arkansas, where the vision for the Hopper exhibition can be traced. Having already published one book on artist Thomas Hart Benton, Mazow was looking to make full professor and needed to write a second book. “So, I was writing a book on Hopper and transportation in general, and a lot of it dealt with hotels and motels,” he said. When he got to the VMFA almost four years ago, he recalled that during his job interview he was asked some of his ideas for exhibitions. “The one I presented literally as my job talk was called ‘Hopper’s Hotels,’” Mazow said. He also noted there had been a number of “blockbuster” Hopper exhibitions, “and I thought the time might be ripe for a more focused look at the hospitality services’ imagery. So, hotels, apartment hotels, tourist hotels, restaurants in hotels. The Hoppers, Edward and Josephine [also a painter], had lunch every day at this place called The Hotel Dixie in New York. So, it’s more looking at not so much Americans on the go, but when they pause and take a break when they are on the go.”
Getting it Together
Pulling together an exhibit takes time, said Mazow, from soliciting other museums and private collectors to borrow specific works to creating a companion book, catalog and audio guide to raising money. The curator didn’t have to go very far to snag one desired work by Hopper called “House at Dusk,” painted in 1935 and purchased by the VMFA in 1953 when Hopper served as a juror for that year’s biennial exhibition at the museum (he originally served as jury chair in 1938). “Hopper often called hotels and motels houses,” said Mazow, noting that many of the artist’s oil paintings are composites of things he saw. “This work that we have, it appropriates a little of this, a little of that. It harkens to some of the things he learned while making covers for Hotel Management, it harkens to some of the things he would have seen in Manhattan and elsewhere.”
Sources for several of the other works on display include New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid.
And perhaps absorbing the hospitality mindset that it’s all about the guest experience, the VMFA has gone one step farther, recreating the hotel room seen in Hopper’s 1957 work “Western Hotel.” Visitors can stay in the eerily accurate space, choosing from four packages that include such things as gift cards, VIP exhibit passes, dinner and a year’s museum membership as part of the Hopper Hotel Experience.
Part of the challenge with the exhibit, Mazow said, came from how magazines and newspapers traditionally were saved. “The question was: ‘How in the hell can we get single issues that have not been bound?’ I went on every rare book, rare magazine web[site] you can imagine. I wrote to so many dealers and no one had these. Then, after six months of looking we were able to find unbound copies of Hotel Management at the MIT Library in Cambridge, Mass.,” he said. “The original drawings Hopper did for these, we don’t even know where those are.”
Mazow reiterated that the artist’s work for Hotel Management did, indeed, influence his career. “Hopper’s work, from the mid-’20s onward never really gets that far beyond Hotel Management. The things he did for Hotel Management—and I would argue even some of the photographs and advertisements and articles—provided a storehouse of images and ideas he would return to again and again. It’s not difficult to make this argument. It’s very clear.” he said.
There’s no argument here, clearly.