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  • Russ Ramsey

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Artist and Muse

For today’s Art Wednesday we’re going to look at the life of Josephine Nivison Hopper: watercolorist, teacher, actor, and muse of her husband Edward Hopper.

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Church of St. Esteban, 1946

In her 20’s, Jo studied under the great Robert Henri, who painted this portrait of her, The Art Student (1906). Jo exhibited her art in galleries around New York City when Edward was an unknown commercial illustrator.

Robert Henri, The Art Student (Josephine Nivison), 1906

Jo Nivison is largely responsible for Edward Hopper’s success. She asked a gallery to let him show some of his art—including this one below— at one of her exhibits. The critics loved him and his career took off.

Edward Hopper, The Mansard Roof, 1923

As soon as Edward’s career took off, it became difficult for Jo to be seen as much beyond Edward’s wife. She said, “What has become of my world — it’s evaporated — I just trudge around in Eddie’s.”

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Self-Portrait, No Date

Jo was Edward’s muse—she appeared in dozens of his paintings. She is the woman in the sun in Summertime. She sits with her hands around the coffee cup in The Automat. She is the woman at the counter in Nighthawks. She reads a newspaper in Hotel Lobby. She sits on the edge of her bed in Western Motel. She stares out the city in Morning Sun. She is the object of a suitor’s gaze in Sunlight in a Cafeteria. She opens a letter in New York Office. She plinks a key on her piano in Room in New York. She watches her husband through a window in Four Lane Road. She travels alone in Chair Car. She is the usherette waiting in New York Movie.

Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939

Jo and Ed fought a lot. She said, “Talking to Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” Ed said, “Living with one woman is like living with two or three tigers.”

Edward and Josephine Hopper

Jo lived as a champion for Edward’s career. She managed his business. He helped him break free from creative slumps. She did most of his interviews on his behalf. She gave her career for his.

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Obituary, No Date

Near the end Edward painted The Two Comedians (1965), depicting he and Jo as clowns taking a final bow. When he died, Jo said life with Ed was “perfection of its own snappy kind,” and “what was perfection together is heart break alone.”

Edward Hopper, The Two Comedians, 1965

Without Jo, we would not have Edward Hopper—not as the artist he became. Had she not urged him to try his hand at watercolors when he was creatively blocked, and had she not lobbied The Brooklyn Museum to include his work in an exhibit they invited her to be part of, who knows what would have come of his career.

With Edward’s final painting, The Two Comedians, he seemed to understand and accept this. The painting depicts Ed and Jo dressed as French clowns, taking a final bow together side by side. The scene pays homage to their long-lived partnership and shared love of the theater. But more than that, it acknowledges that she is no longer the usherette in the wings tending to the order of his life. She is his co-conspirator, his collaborator, his partner.

Gail Levin wrote, “As Hopper explored the idea [of The Two Comedians], he drew a male figure leaping into the air while another figure clambered up onto a small stage. In another drawing, he imagined the male gracefully handing the female through an exit, with spectators appearing behind a low barrier. In the canvas, he raises both figures up to the solid stage, with its border of artificial woods, where they link hands and prepare to bow, their free hands poised as if about to gesture in deference to each other.”

After 43 years of marriage, they were bowing out. He depicted them as a unit. As equals, even. Though in life he often wanted to be left alone, in death he wanted Jo by his side. The French historian and novelist Bernard Chambaz poignantly noted, “So often a painter of absence, here he depicts a presence, but it is the presence of those who are about to disappear.”

Edward Hopper died in his apartment on May 15, 1967, at the age of 84. Jo was there when it happened. She wrote, “When the hour struck, he was home, here in his big chair in big studio—and took one minute to die. No pain, no sound, and eyes serene and even happy and very beautiful in death, like an El Greco.”

Josephine Nivison Hopper died ten months later.

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Untitled Self-Portrait, No Date




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