My family took a lot of trips when I was young, and often we didn’t arrive at our destination until long into the evening. I still recall the disorientation of awaking somewhere with no idea how we’d gotten there — the hotel felt unmoored from reality, as though we’d travelled to an entirely different world rather than merely another state. Edward Hopper’s “Rooms for Tourists” (1945) evokes much the same feeling. It depicts a boardinghouse at night, lit mostly from the inside. The buildings around it have no presence of their own. Even the people seem to have disappeared just out of the frame, leaving the lights on to welcome visitors.
“Rooms for Tourists” is currently on display at the Whitney Museum, along with a number of his other paintings, as part of a large exhibition featuring both famous finished works and never-before-seen process drawings. Curator Carter E. Foster has cleverly arranged the space to showcase how Hopper drafted his final products, allowing viewers to observe the accumulation of details that eventually cohere into a single whole.
The exhibit includes nine drawings for “Rooms for Tourists,” varying from extremely rough, partial sketches to a complete draft that’s a work of art in its own right. The progression shows in an ever-increasing level of exactitude: the early versions are just rough shapes with little shading or detailing, while later drafts include more depth and greater sections of the whole.
The rougher drawings are collections of small sketches — a window here, a welcome sign there — and so give the impression of Hopper trying to work out the piece’s trickiest bits. Of the seven drawings of this type, the porch columns show up in six, the big windows at the front of the house in three, and each version of an element varies in detail, with a basic shape slowly gaining depth and intricacy. These early sketches also include Hopper’s notes about color and lighting. An early rendering of the sign out front includes a note pointing out the “light corner,” which is one of the brightest spots in the finished painting.
The last two drawings offer a more complete picture of the final product. One is a daylight sketch of a real Provincetown boardinghouse with a lightly traced line marking a new border; the other adopts that more limited border and nighttime shading to create a black-and-white simulacrum of the painting itself. These shifts reflect Hopper’s two most obvious and important artistic decisions: the late-night darkness and the framing that cuts out much of the surroundings, including the top of the house itself. That limited perspective, along with the contrast between the light pouring out of the windows and the barely visible parts of other buildings, make the boardinghouse all the more striking. Hopper may have simply noticed the house while passing by, but his painting invites viewers to stop and stay a while.
Hopper Drawing continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 6.
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