Edward Hopper & Josephine Nivison: The Troubled Artistic Union

Josephine Nivison sacrificed her artistic career for the sake of her husband Edward Hopper, the painter of the famous Nighthawks.

Jun 16, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

edward hopper josephine nivison artistic union

 

Edward Hopper is one of the undisputed heroes of American modern art. His works are familiar even to those who rarely visit museums. Hopper’s paintings evoke feelings of gloom, loneliness, and alienation. However, while praising the artistic innovation of Hopper, art critics rarely seem to mention his wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper. Nivison was a successful artist before her marriage and she propelled her husband’s career. Read on to learn more about the troubled union between Josephine and Edward Hopper and the forgotten legacy of this woman artist.

 

Edward Hopper and Josephine Nivison Hopper

Edward Hopper and Josephine Nivison Hopper soon after their marriage. Source: Arthive

 

The life story of Edward Hopper, one of the most recognizable American Realist painters of the 20th century, is widely known and discussed. His wife of forty-four years, Josephine Nivison Hopper, usually gets mentioned as the muse or the model of the great artist.

 

Josephine Nivison, or Jo as she preferred to be called, was a New York City native, born in the early 1880s. During her young adulthood, she earned a living working as a school teacher but she always felt an inclination to the arts. She acted in theater companies and visited art colonies, mostly working with watercolors, painting landscapes and still lifes, using unusually bold colors. Not much of her work has survived, but we know for sure that Jo Nivison’s work was frequently included in art shows and displayed next to works made by Modigliani and Man Ray.

 

Chop Suey, by Edward Hopper, 1929. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

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Nivison and Hopper crossed paths repeatedly but never paid enough attention to each other. This all changed in 1923 when they met again in an art colony in Massachusetts, both in their early forties. Jo had lost her beloved Arthur, a cat she adopted from the streets, and Edward helped her bring it home. At the time, Hopper was working with commercial illustration. After their relationship got serious, Jo encouraged him to move to the domain of fine art and even used her connections in the art world to make sure his work was added to group shows. The debut of Edward Hopper was an immediate success. A year after their encounter in Massachusetts, the couple married, enthusiastic about their prospective life together.

 

The Dark Side of the Artistic Union

Morning Sun, by Edward Hopper, 1952. Source: Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

However, the promising story of two artists creating art side by side and supporting each other never happened. For some reason, Edward Hopper expected his now wife, a mature woman in her forties, who spent years building an artistic career and fighting institutional barriers, to turn into a submissive housewife overnight. Despite Jo’s crucial role in promoting Hopper’s art, he never acknowledged her effort. He drew cartoons portraying Jo as the nagging and neglectful wife bothering and starving her poor husband. Gradually, he forbade her to discuss their relationship with others and cut her off from all her friends. Edward Hopper had to be the only person and the only project in Josephine Nivinson’s life, as he could not tolerate any kind of competition.

 

In terms of artistic practice, the initial excitement of shared occupation and common goals did not last long. As Hopper’s fame grew, he developed more resentment toward his wife’s accomplishments. He never directly forbade her to paint but was eager to build every possible obstacle in her way. At some point, Edward divided their shared studio, not allowing Jo to cross a line painted on the floor. He forbade her to use art supplies, claiming he needed them more. This forced her to buy new ones for herself. In a rare letter to a friend, Josephine noted that Edward often deliberately destabilized her mental state because he knew she would paint if she became happy. Devoid of creative impulse, Josephine turned into her husband’s manager, bookkeeper, and full-time model.

 

Light at Two Lights, by Edward Hopper, 1927. Source: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

 

The dark side of their relationship was not limited to verbal or psychological abuse. Physical fights were so common that on their twentieth anniversary, Jo said they deserved a medal for distinguished combat. Edward replied by sketching a coat of arms of a crossed rolling pin and ladle—the objects often involved in their violent clashes. Intimacy did not bring joy either. Jo’s diaries keep records of complete neglect of her wants and needs, sexual violence, and abuse.

 

In her notes, Jo refers to paintings as their children, with Edward’s works being called heirs and hers being called stillborns. She further explained that she was incapable of creating anything healthy and functional in her mental state. She had no illusions about their marriage and the fact that she wasted decades of her life working on someone else’s accomplishments. While looking at a lighthouse painting by her husband, she compared him to it—tall, bright, and attractive to every living thing. Jo herself was neither a weary traveler nor a boat at sea, but a seagull that broke its neck upon collision with the lighthouse.

 

Artist Wife or Wife of Artist?

Edward Hopper and Josephine Nivison. Source: Samuel Thomas

 

As terrifying and tragic as the case of Josephine Nivison seems, it is unfortunately not the only one. The abrupt erasure of the artistic effort of women associated with famous men was and remains a systemic issue. Upon starting a relationship or marrying famous male artists, women usually moved into the category of muses, occupying a passive position or doing the unpaid labor of inspiring their partners and often managing their enterprises. For decades, the image of a revolutionary photographer Dora Maar was not associated with her groundbreaking and commercially successful imagery but with Picasso. Jeanne Hebuterne, a promising young artist of the Parisian avant-garde, remained known as a tragic romantic heroine who committed suicide while eight months pregnant after the death of her partner, Amedeo Modigliani.

 

Untitled Landscape, by Josephine Nivison Hopper. Source: Boston Globe

 

This does not mean, however, that a forgotten partner artist is always necessarily a good artist. They do not have to be; still, they deserve a chance to be seen. The Pre-Raphaelite icon Elizabeth Siddall, known as the muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a gifted poet and a mediocre painter. She was mediocre not because of a lack of talent but because of her inability to study art properly. In other circumstances, she might have become the heroine of the entire movement not in the passive role of a frail and sickly red-haired specter but as an independent and confident creator. In a hostile and unwelcoming environment, the mere fact of her artistic input marked her dedication and potential, serving as a case study for the limited opportunities of women artists.

 

The case of Jo Nivison feels more tragic because of the immediate and obvious hypocrisy of the art world. The same people who eagerly included her work in shows discarded her at the first opportunity, preferring to praise her husband, the stereotypical Great Male Master. Nivison’s bitterness and regret filled her notes and rare artworks, weaving a narrative of involuntary yet conscious self-sacrifice.

 

The Posthumous Story of Edward Hopper’s Wife Josephine Nivison Hopper

Basket of Fruit by Josephine Nivison Hopper. Source: Artnet

 

Josephine Nivison Hopper outlived her famous husband for almost a year. In her will, she donated 3,000 paintings by her and her husband to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The same Whitney Museum that decades earlier presented Jo’s paintings at contemporary art shows, discarded her work, focusing on the oeuvre of her husband. Some watercolors by Nivison Hopper vanished without a trace, others were supposedly loaned to unnamed hospitals and governmental institutions and, most likely, still anonymously decorate these walls.

 

Curator Elliot Bostwick Davis and a self-portrait by Josephine Nivison Hopper, Cape Ann Museum Gloucester. Source: WBUR

 

In popular and art historical literature, Jo Hopper was quickly labeled as a villain and a bitter, superficial woman trying to force the public to admire her mediocre art instead of her husband’s genius. Even in news articles on Hopper’s generous posthumous donation, the journalists could not help themselves but express contempt for Jo, writing that she was convinced of the value of her work. Her art was dismissed as lightweight, unserious, and feminine in a derogatory sense. Only in the 1990s did art historian Gail Levin discover Jo’s diaries while writing a biography of Edward Hopper (Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography). Her website also has a special page dedicated to the works of Jo Hopper. This newly revealed information greatly altered the general image of the artist and her heritage, showing a woman who made a sacrifice she never intended to make, and her attempts to protect her space and agency.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.