on journey: an encounter with edward hopper on the way to charleston

It was a too-familiar drive from my home in Northern Virginia to Richmond, where I would spend the night with my daughter before we took off the next morning for Charleston, South Carolina. On I-95 South, I passed the Weems-Botts Museum in Dumfries, which apparently celebrates the history of Dumfries, Virginia’s oldest chartered town.  Brett Dennen sang about losing his mind as I crossed Chopawamsic Creek and guzzled a Minute Maid lemonade.

I-95 is a long, boring and heavily trafficked highway, 110 miles, and I barely pay attention to anything along the road these days, after having driven the route countless times since 1988, when Mike and I got married and I moved to Northern Virginia from Richmond.

I passed Chancellorsville and Wilderness Battleground, Culpeper, and Ladysmith, while Daft Punk sang “Get Lucky.”

After two hours,  I was at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  My daughter wouldn’t be off work until later, so I stopped to see the exhibit on “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel.”  It was the perfect exhibit for a road trip send-off, as it was all about American road trips and tourist accommodations, and it gave me much inspiration, especially Hopper’s wife Jo’s journals.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) frequently depicted hotels, motels, boardinghouses, and tourist homes through his five-decade long career. His work shows the shifting American landscape from the 1920s to the 1960s.

In the summer of 1914, Hopper stayed at Mrs. Perkins’s Boardinghouse, which eventually became Perkin’s Cove House, in Ogunquit, Maine, where the friendly “Ma” Perkins served guests in a communal setting. Hopper produced a number of pictures from the vantage point of these homes and their vicinity.

The Perkins property figured in Josephine (Jo) Nivison Hopper’s early relationship with Edward, whom she had probably first met as a fellow student of Robert Henri at the New York School of Art around 1905.  Jo later recalled that she and Edward “were seated at the same table at Ma Perkins’ boardinghouse” in summer 1914, which anticipated the keen role that tourist homes would play in their marriage.


The Dories, Ogunquit, 1914, by Edward Hopper


Untitled (Cove at Ogunquit), 1914, by Edward Hopper

Hopper’s interest in hospitality services began early in his career.  In the 1920s, he designed covers for two widely-read hotel trade magazines.  He offered an insider’s perspective as a frequent guest in hotels, motels and tourist homes.  This became especially clear in the diaries kept by his wife, Jo Hopper.

In the 1920s, Hopper illustrated covers for Tavern Topics and Hotel Management, trade publications addressing the hospitality field. Hopper produced 18 covers for Hotel Management, a widely read journal in the hospitality services field.  The articles, columns and photos in the trade periodical gave Hopper a storehouse of themes that inspired him for decades.

The American Urban Hotel flourished in the 1920s and 1930s because of an expanding middle class able to enjoy travel and other leisure activities.  Growth in auto ownership and a new network of highways benefited the hotel trade and led to the rise of rural motels by the late 1940s.

Especially popular in the early and mid-1920s, apartment hotels offered short-term leases for small suites of rooms catering to middle-class couples and families who enjoyed amenities such as housekeeping, maintenance, a doorman, and a downstairs dining area. Apartment Houses, 1923, incorporates some of these elements.


Apartment Houses, 1923, by Edward Hopper

Many of the objects in Eleven A.M., 1926, were in keeping with articles and advertisements Hopper would have seen in Hotel Management in 1924 and 1925.


Eleven A.M., 1926, Edward Hopper

Haunted House is the first or second depiction of a multiple-tenant rental property.  Hopper noted in his ledger book that the structure was a “boarding house” in Rockland, Maine.


Haunted House, 1926, by Edward Hopper

In Hopper’s first images of hotels, he developed a formula of props and postures to suggest the spirit of travel and mobility.  We find nondescript beds and worn-out furniture, well-used window dressings, and other ordinary objects likely to outfit a boarding house or hotel for single women. Such objects are often combined with a figure engaged in solitary contemplation.


Hotel Room, 1931, by Edward Hopper


Entry for Hotel Room

Room in New York is a 1932 oil on canvas painting that portrays two individuals in a New York City flat.


Room in New York, 1932, by Edward Hopper

In the background of Capron House is a long building with multiple dormers. This is the Chequesset Inn, a luxurious resort hotel.  Built in 1886, the inn was an all-inclusive establishment designed to resemble an ocean liner.  Touted as the “Hotel Over the Sea,” it stood four hundred feet into Wellfleet Harbor on an old mercantile pier. Later, in 1933, the deck and portico fell into the harbor after a brutal ice storm.


Capron House, 1933, by Edward Hopper

House at Dusk, 1935, combines many architectural elements Hopper found in the inventory of Hotel Management and Tavern Topics magazines.


House at Dusk, 1935, by Edward Hopper

Bob and Irene Slater ran a tourist home called Wagon Wheels in South Royalton, Vermont.  The Hoppers first stayed there when they were fleeing a hurricane making its way up the New England coast in 1938.  This vista from the home shows Hopper using his lodgings as a vantage point for a painted view.


Bob Slater’s Hill, 1938, by Edward Hopper

Hopper’s female protagonist in Morning in a City, 1944, rests her eyes, possibly on nothing in particular.  Capturing the hotel sensibility are the bleached-white sheets and towel.  Jo Hopper noted that “tourists like white because they know nothing is being hidden.”


Morning in a City, 1944, by Edward Hopper

Tourist homes in the 1920s to 1940s, much like today’s Airbnb rentals, converted individual bedrooms into overnight accommodations for travelers. Guests benefited from inexpensive lodging and homeowners from extra income.  Hopper’s wife Jo enjoyed conversations with people across the country. However, rooms in strangers’ homes were usually the Hoppers’ second or third choices after motels, cabins, and other lodgings.

Hopper used the roof and elevated windows of hotels or tourist homes as framing devices for several drawings and watercolors.

Rooms for Tourists, 1945, depicts a tourist home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, near Hopper’s summer house and studio in South Truro. A well-lit sign beckons cars to stop for the night.


Rooms for Tourists, 1945, by Edward Hopper

Josephine Hopper kept copious journals from 1933 until her death in 1968.  They describe the couple’s life in transit and offer poignant observations about travel in North America by automobile in the interwar and postwar years. As a trained artist, she focused on the minutiae of the decor that most hotel visitors surely would have missed.

Edward and Jo Hopper were among those who took advantage of the widely available hotels and tourist homes. Hopper’s experiences provided him with much inspiration.


Jo Hopper’s diary entry, 1951

I loved seeing the Diary for late 1952-1954, volume 37, by Josephine Nivison Hopper, although her handwriting is a challenge to read.


Diary for late 1952-1954, volume 37, by Josephine Nivison Hopper


diary by Josephine Hopper

Mexico became a favorite road trip destination for Edward and Jo Hopper.  The Hoppers made five trips to Mexico between 1943-1955. Their first visit was by train, but they regretted not having a car to explore remote areas. The Saltillo Mansion‘s curtained window, one of Hopper’s favorite urban motifs, reminds us the presence of permanent inhabitants of Saltillo, in contrast to the artist’s status as a tourist.


Saltillo Mansion, 1943, by Edward Hopper

In Saltillo Rooftops, 1943, Hopper painted a landscape of gables and ridges echoing the undulating mountain range in the distance. The Sierra Madre range is shown outside the city.


Saltillo Rooftops, 1943, by Edward Hopper

Monterrey Cathedral, Mexico, 1943, depicts the city’s famed cathedral against the backdrop of the looming Cerro de la Silla mountain.


Monterrey Cathedral, Mexico, 1943, by Edward Hopper

In May of 1946, the Hoppers departed for Mexico by car. They spent six weeks in Saltillo at the Hotel Arizpe Sainz.  A gas shortage and labor strikes kept them from exploring further.  On the return trip, the Hoppers took a detour north to Wyoming before heading home.  On this journey, the couple stayed at inexpensive motor courts or camps when they could afford them and tourist homes when they could not.

In El Palacio, 1946, Hopper cast his vision downward to survey houses, storefronts, hotels, a garage and a cinema.  Hopper captured the collision of modern-day Saltillo with its cultural past.


El Palacio, 1946, by Edward Hopper

Edward and Jo both painted San Esteban, a local parish church, from the roof of the Hotel Arizpe Sainz in Saltillo.


Church of San Esteban, 1946, by Edward Hopper

The Hopper’s third trip to Mexico in 1951 proved to be a disappointing and harrowing journey. They were involved in two auto accidents, one of which, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, required a court appearance followed by extensive car repairs. Delayed by five days, they found themselves staying at two full-service hotels they considered beyond their budget (the Molly Pitcher and Park Hotels).

The exhibit also included postcards collected during a 1952-1953 road trip, the Hopper’s fourth trip to Mexico, with visits to Mitla and Ozxaca.

The period postcards depict lodgings and sites visited by the Hoppers on road trips.  In 1927, they bought their first car and eventually traveled as far west as California and as far south as Oaxaca, Mexico, often spending weeks in transit. They toured state parks, cities and towns, rural countryside, expanses of desert, open highways, and coastal roads. From 1941 to 1953, the Hoppers embarked on at least five extended road trips of 1,000 miles or more each, always with Edward driving and Jo in the passenger seat documenting the journey.

In the Cold War years, resorts increasingly relied on a a window’s potential to let in the sun’s rays.  In Morning Sun, 1952, a woman sits in an enclosed, niche-like shape created by the light streaming from the window, bleaching out facial features and striking a powerful light-shadow contrast across her body.


Morning Sun, 1952, by Edward Hopper

Western Motel, 1957, recalls several sites in El Paso at which Edward and Jo stayed in December 1952.  The woman appears to be newly arrived or, inversely, ready to depart.  The Hoppers at this time owned a Buick “54” sedan, similar to the car depicted here, featuring Dagmars (chrome conical ornaments) on its front bumpers. Some of the furniture in the room appear in mid-1950s advertisements for Simmons.


Western Motel, 1957, by Edward Hopper

Through her diaries, Jo Hopper offered extended commentary on the road trips she and Edward took in the 1940s and 1950s and the motels they stayed in.  Their experience paralleled the Cold War-era motel craze.  From the late 1920s to 1940, the number of motels grew from 600 to 40,000.  By the mid-1950s, 59% of overnight auto travelers stayed in motels. Their typical location, along a highway outside of the town center, made motels desirable and convenient. The lodgings were informal and affordable, and guests were not required to wear formal attire, nor were they expected to tip for services.


motel culture and the American West

A view from Hopper’s apartment on Washington Square North, this painting contains two lodging types. The Judson Church, with its ten-story campanile, was actually the Hotel Judson, housing poverty-stricken individuals, with rent proceeds benefiting the church.  The 3-story burnt orange building cropped at left in the painting is the House of Genius, which served as a boardinghouse for authors, musicians, and artists from the 1910s to the 1930s.


November, Washington Square, ca. 1932, 1959, by Edward Hopper

While visiting Charleston in the spring of 1929, Edward and Jo explored the architecture of the Lowcountry region.  South Carolina Morning may well refer to this experience.


South Carolina Morning, 1955, by Edward Hopper

In People in the Sun, 1960, five individuals sit in adjustable deck chairs outside the curtained windows of a hotel or resort. Though inspired by sunbathers at Washington Square Park in New York, Hopper westernized the tableau with the horizontal spread of the Rincon Mountains in Arizona. This is Hopper’s only work to depict a male reader – signifying shifting etiquette codes in mid-century travel and leisure.


People in the Sun, 1960 by Edward Hopper

The term “hospitality services” typically refers not only to hotels and other accommodations for rent on a nightly basis, but also the range of amenities such as guest meals, safe shelter, clean rooms, luggage assistance, and entertainment. Hopper’s imagery coincided with other American artists who traced the history of the hotel through the early 20th century.

All information about the Hopper exhibit is from plaques at the museum.


After leaving the museum, I headed to my daughter’s house, encountering a pretty mural and the setting sun.


flowery mural


November sunset in Richmond

At my daughter Sarah’s house, she had put together a huge meal of falafel, red onions and liquid smoke, salad greens, roasted cauliflower and wine.  It was lovely catching up over dinner and wine.

I hadn’t heard from my husband, so I texted him to ask him about his day.  He said it was “draining.”  He said our youngest son was struggling and they went for a walk and talked for about two hours.  He didn’t want to tell me more about it, because he was exhausted from the whole exchange. He just texted that “he was just in one of his down times about the world and felt better after we talked.”

Because we’ve had so many struggles with our son, I imagined the worst and tossed and turned all night worrying about what happened. I started our trip to Charleston with that familiar pit in my stomach.

*Steps: 5,740, or 2.43 miles*

*Sunday, November 10, 2019*