RICHMOND, Va. — Behind a pane of glass at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a wooden bed frame anchors a sparsely decorated motel room. Vintage suitcases have been arranged at the foot of the bed, and light streams in diagonally through a window, just beyond which a green Buick is visible, parked in the foreground of a mesa landscape.
It looks like the setting of a painting, and it is. Every detail here was inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1957 painting “Western Motel,” which has been brought to vibrant, three-dimensional life. The only thing missing is the mysterious woman whose burgundy dress matches the bedspread. But that’s where the museum guest comes in.
I was the second person to stay in the museum’s Hopper hotel room, essentially becoming its subject for a night. (Before it sold out through February, the room cost anywhere from $150 a night to $500 for a package, including dinner, mini golf and a tour with the curator.) My time there was short — a standard stay runs from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. — and awkward. I had traveled all day to reach Richmond, and these pristinely basic quarters were the main event. Ultimately, it reminded me of every other hotel room I’ve ever stayed in.
Ellen Chapman, a Richmond resident who stayed the night before I did, was more focused on the novelty of an art overnight. “I’ve always had that childhood fantasy of spending the night in a museum,” she said. “The remarkable part for me was waking up, drinking my coffee and looking at this amazing exhibit right next to me.”
The “Hopper Hotel Experience” is the flashy centerpiece of “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel,” an exhibition featuring about 60 of the artist’s hospitality-themed works, including paintings, sketches and early-career cover illustrations for the trade magazine, Hotel Management. Also on view are 35 works by other American artists exploring travel in America across time and medium, from Robert Salmon’s 1830 painting “Dismal Swamp Canal” to a 2009 photograph by Susan Worsham titled “Marine, Hotel Near Airport, Richmond, VA.”
Leo G. Mazow, the show’s curator, said he intends the Hopper room to do more than just generate buzz. “So many people say, ‘Well, Hopper’s about alienation.’” But for Mr. Mazow, Hopper’s themes of “transience and transportation yield a particular type of detachment,” which the hotel experience explores.
Hopper’s painting career coincided with the period when automobile production and expanding highway infrastructure made travel possible for a broader range of Americans. A lifelong New Yorker, Hopper and his wife, Jo, took several extended road trips, during which he painted common elements of American life: hotels, motels and guesthouses; lighthouses; restaurants; city streets and interiors. His quietly dramatic depictions of those spaces and the people in them came to define an American aesthetic.
Barbara Haskell, a curator specializing in 20th-century painting and sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which owns most of Hopper’s oeuvre, said, “As Americans, we have this individualistic thread that runs through the country, and he captures that individualism in a way that no artist really does.”
Hopper imbued his subjects with a sense of interiority that reflected his own resistance to the societal changes of midcentury America. Jo Hopper’s diaries (on display here) describe him as a political conservative with a deep skepticism toward the new: He was appalled by skyscrapers; categorically opposed to air travel; and unable to cope with women’s independence (he forbade his wife from driving).
The result in his work is “a kind of sadness, a nostalgia for a way of life that’s disappearing,” Ms. Haskell added.
And yet Hopper indulged in the modern pastime of car travel. “Western Motel” sits at the crux of this ambivalence, depicting a striking landscape, but as seen through the window of a generic indoor space built for refuge.
As I sat on the bed in a Hopper refuge come to life, I reflected on my own journey to the “motel” from Brooklyn. After nine hours on the M.T.A., Amtrak and Greyhound, I found myself inside the room, and straddling two worlds: I tinkered with the radio (wood-finished for historical accuracy but bluetooth-enabled for function), chewed on a Tootsie Roll and leafed through issues of TIME from 1957. (One absorbing piece was titled “The Emancipation of Moslem Women,” and ads for Bermuda were dominated by white people.)
Then a modern instinct kicked in: I set my phone’s photo timer and snapped a few pictures of myself posed as the painting’s sitter. As I prepared to post the winner to Instagram, my own wave of ambivalence washed over. In that moment, I was spending more energy capturing the perfect shot than experiencing the place I’d traveled to see. Alienation, indeed.
Edward Hopper and the American Hotel
Through Feb. 23 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Va.; 804-340-1400, vmfa.museum. The Hopper Hotel Experience is completely sold out.