Monday’s Muse: Josephine Verstille Nivison Hopper

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Josephine V. Nivison was born in 1884 in Manhattan to a father who was a piano teacher and a musician, and somewhat absent minded. Whilst her early life was punctuated by frequent upheavals and moves around the city, she was grateful that her family never left. She once remarked that unlike others, she had never been forced “to move mountains and lakes and hencoops and relations”1 in an effort just to get to New York. Her upbringing was liberal, and she was allowed to study and pursue her interests, which led her from the Normal College of the City of New York to the New York School of Art where she studied under Robert Henri. Henri encouraged her and instructed her in everything from philosophy, to painting and dance. Josephine would later sit for Henri as the subject of his 1906 painting The Art Student.

The Art Student
Robert Henri’s The Art Student, 1906

 

Henri was an important early influence on Josephine, and her trip to see him in the Netherlands, when he taught there for a summer, exposed her to the various emerging movements and schools of Parisian art. Throughout her early twenties she supported herself as a teacher. But through the influence of Henri, her studies and her travels, she spent much of her spare time painting and working with the early elements of the American avant garde movement. She exhibited work in group shows alongside the likes of Man Ray and Charles Demuth, and contributed illustrations to socialist magazines like The Masses. In 1915, she joined the Washington Square Players, and acted in many of their early productions.

Josephine balanced her time in New York with summers spent in New England at artists’ colonies, and it was there that she began to run into a shy boy with “good dancing legs” – “Eddie” (Edward Hopper)2. Josephine kept careful diaries of her early life, and later of her marriage with Edward, and the details of their initial courtship were positively bucolic: Edward would supposedly rise early and wait outside her tiny New England boarding house, casting pebbles at her window to wake her, before spiriting her away to sketch in the forests.

The fleeting summer romance and picnics returned with them to the city, and Josephine became an integral force in Edward’s career. Her involvement became so intimate that she eventually gave up her career in service of his. She encouraged him to begin working in watercolors, and expanded his palette to brighter colors. In 1923, when she was invited to show her work at the Brooklyn Museum as part of a group show, she pushed for the inclusion of Edward’s work – an act which was to be a turning point in his career. It resulted in the sale of his painting The Mansard Roof, which was only his second sale in a decade. Yet his exposure through the exhibition led to an invitation for his first solo show. Furthermore, critics were quick to single out and praise Hooper’s works calling them “exhilarating” and drawing comparisons with Winslow Homer. Josephine and Edward married the following year, and Josephine became the steward of all of Edward’s work – his paintings, his correspondence, his accounts etc. She would later write:

“If there can be room for only one of us, it must undoubtedly be he. I can be glad and grateful for that.”3

Despite this grandiose statement, Josephine struggled to truly accept the new imbalance. She would ask rhetorically, “Isn’t it nice to have a wife who paints?” to which Edward replied, “It stinks”. Their arguments were characterized by more than passing slights: Josephine would scratch and strike Edward, who in turn once went so far as to slam her head against a shelf.

Yet, Edward’s meteoric rise became the focal point of both their lives. Josephine at times became a literal driving force,4 always prepared to pack up and leave whenever Edward had to travel or explore in service of his work. The couple had no children, Edward’s work served as their progeny. Josephine even called the works “newborn heir[s]”.

Despite the blind dedication, Josephine had her own rules, one of which was that Edward was to have no female sitters bar her, and from 1923 until his death in 1967, every single woman he depicted, from the exotic dancer in The Girlie Show to the quiet redhead in Nighthawks, was based on Josephine.

The Girlie Show
Edward Hopper’s The Girlie Show, 1941

 

Nighthawks
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942

 

The decline of Josephine’s work matches the rise of her husband’s. Some critics believe the two were truly entangled, in a way few artists and muses have ever been. Typically there is a sense of distance, a reverence that characterizes these relationships: Freud waxing lyrical about Leigh Bowery’s physique; Manet championing the symbolic plainness of Meurent; Brancusi trying to memorize Pogany’s essence. These relationships might be charged with some sexual intrigue, and they might even spill over into actual passion (as in the case of Schiele or Picasso) but they always center around the focal point of art. There is never any sense that these relationships ever strayed into more quotidian territory – Josephine complained about Edward’s preference for tinned food.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of Josephine and Edward’s relationship is not its peaks but its troughs: the 43 years of marriage, the dedication and reliance upon the other, and ultimately, what was left behind.

Notes:

^ 1. Levin, Gail. “Josephine Verstille Josephine Hopper”. Woman’s Art Journal 1.1 (1980): 28. Web…5/3/16
^ 2. Levin. 29. Web…5/3/16
^ 3. Wood, Gaby. “Edward Hopper’s Wife and Muse.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2004. Web. 03 May 2016.
^ 4. “With the front seat pushed up, there’s room for my husband’s long legs in the back” Levin. 30. Web 5/3/16

Featured Image: Jo and Ed Hopper, 1927.