WILLIAMSTOWN -- I've been chasing a painting.
In December, while I was visiting my college-aged daughter, who was in the middle of a semester abroad in Paris, we went to try and see a much-talked-about Edward Hopper (1882-1967) exhibit at the Grand Palais -- Hopper was also an American in Paris.
There was only one problem. Without tickets, we were going to have to wait in a three-hour line just to get in. The Hopper exhibit had become a phenomenon, as well attended as a new Picasso or Monet exhibit, maybe because none of the Paris museums own a Hopper work. The French seem to love Hopper almost as much as Americans do.
(We chose not to stand in line and made our way to the Musée d'Orsay, not a bad way to spend an afternoon either.)
Coming home, I consoled myself that was that there was an original Hopper, "Morning in a City," a stone's throw from my desk. Who needed to stand in line for three hours when I could stretch my legs by wandering into Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) any day of the week and see an original Hopper there?
But in January I learned "Morning in a City" was not at WCMA at the moment -- it had traveled to the Hopper exhibit in Paris at the Grand Palais.
Not to be deterred, I returned on a sunny late February day, the first day that "Morning in a City" (an oil on canvas completed in 1944) returned to the WCMA walls.
By now, I had studied the painting in depth on a computer screen -- but this morning reminded me why it is important to see the real thing. Now I know why people were standing three hours in a December Paris rain to see the original work. Hopper was worth the wait.
The original painting of "Morning in a City" was much larger than I expected, larger than most of Hopper works (at c. 44 by 60 inches).
Seeing it startled me, like being in Williamstown in the summer and seeing a famous actor connected to the theater festival getting his cup of coffee. What are they doing here?
This painting has all the Hopper trademarks: The ordinary woman, in this case naked, in an ordinary moment that is somehow distinctly American, both the place (an ordinary hotel room), and the woman herself, who is more plain than especially beautiful.
What is not so ordinary, and what is never so ordinary in a Hopper work, is the subtle blend of colors, predominantly greens and yellows and browns, and the light coming through from the outside window and illuminating the woman's pale skin.
Despite the usual sense of isolation that pervades almost all of Hopper's work (she is alone, in a non-descript hotel room, in an unrecognizable city, standing in front of a small, single-sized bed), there is something hopeful in that light, and that morning, a day ahead that holds who knows what?
It's been said that despite how realistic Hopper paintings are considered to be -- almost hyper-real, as in a David Lynch movie or a Gregory Crewdson photograph -- they don't fall into the category of a narrative work. Still, such moments call upon the viewer to provide one. Who is this woman? What city is she in, and what is she doing in a hotel room by herself? Is she running away? And if so, running to what, to where? What is she running from? She doesn't seem in a particular hurry, and in fact looks calm, almost serene standing there in this morning light, as if some big decision is behind her.
Despite a few trips abroad, which she'll no doubt continue to make, this woman, this work, will be here as she's always been, waiting for her day to begin -- since 1977, when the Williams College alum and art collector Lawrence H. Bloedel (class of 1923) graciously donated this and a portion of his complete collection to Williams College.
Locals can see her any time. There are no lines in Williamstown.