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A Night at the Museum: Hopper Exhibit at the VMFA

Mallory Noe-Payne



The newest exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond takes experiential art to a new level. The museum has recreated a famous painting of a hotel room, where guests can actually spend a night. 


It’s a bit uncanny. On the wall is Edward Hopper’s famous 1957 painting “Western Motel.” It shows a woman on a dark framed bed, in a room with green walls and a green rug and a large window framing a bland hilly landscape. 

Then, right next to it is a life-size replica. 

“And it is a real room with a real hotel bed and suitcases and lamp,” described chief curator Michael Taylor. “And it’s where our visitors will spend the night.”   

On a recent press preview of the exhibit, Taylor stood in front of a window that peers voyeuristically into the room. It’s a mirror image of the painting beside it, down to the way a block of light falls across the bed.

“I don’t find it creepy. I find, like what I’m trying to do all the time is… match, and see how close we replicated it. Because we did a lot of lighting designs and tests to get the shadows right,” said Taylor. “People are as much drawn to this recreation as they are to the actual painting. And it makes you see the painting in a different way, which I love.”

The museum has already sold out the special overnight packages. They include a private guided tour of the exhibit, plus dinner at the museum’s restaurant. 

But the exhibit is also now open for those content to just see, and not live in, Hopper’s paintings. 

Credit Mallory Noe-Payne / RADIOIQ

“Edward Hopper was the foremost American realist of twentieth century American art,” Curator Leo Mazow said. “You know if you were in an art history class you would have memorized these works.” 

Hopper’s understated oil paintings depict motels, waiting rooms, and diners. He and his wife, also an artist, would road trip around the country searching for inspiration. 

The exhibit features her road-trip diaries and postcards alongside his paintings of the common-place. 

“He wants to say that the meanings by which we measure our lives happen in the everyday. There’s extreme happiness, there’s great tumult and tragedy, but what about the in between moments? The other 85 or 90 percent of our lives?” Mazow said. “That’s what he captures.” 

When Hopper first rose to prominence in the mid 20th century... abstract expressionism was in its heyday. Hopper’s gritty and gloomy hotel lobbies were a sharp departure from Jackson Pollock’s expressive splashes of color. 

“Hopper wanted to show you that realism, representational art, could be as heady as probing as philosophically and even spiritually deep as the abstraction,” said Mazow.


The VMFA’s special exhibit, “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel”, will be open through the end of February.


This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.