Friday, March 29, 2013

The Human Question Mark

Robert Henri "The Art Student: Portrait of Miss Josephine Nivison" 1905
Milwaukee Art Museum
Josephine Nivison Hopper (1883-1968) was born in New York City into what we would now call a "dysfunctional family" replete with illness, poverty and frequent relocation. The artist described her father as having "practically no paternal instinct." Nonetheless, she survived and in 1900 she enrolled in the Normal College of the City of New York (now Hunter College) which at that time provided free teacher training and certification to young women. While at college, she decided to also pursue her interest in the arts. While taking some classes at the New York School of Art, she met the artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929) who asked her to pose for him. Henri said of the encounter, 

"She was standing in her old paint-spattered apron at the close of a lesson, with her paint brushes clutched firmly in her little fist, listening to a conversation.  She seemed a little human question mark, and everything about her, every line of her dress, suggested the idea.  I wanted to paint her just as she was, and I asked her to pose for me the next day.  
 I was afraid she couldn't assume the same pose and the same look, bit it happened that as she entered my studio she fell into the same energetic, questioning attitude. I had to paint very rapidly to get it. " (from Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, by Gail Levin.)

Edward Hopper "Jo Sketching at Good Harbor Beach" 1925-8  Whitney Museum

The following year she began teaching in the NYC Public School system. She taught steadily for the next decade or so but stayed in touch with Henri and other artist friends. As a teacher, she had her summers free, and spent most of them them traveling and staying at different art colonies. She had first met met her future husband, artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) at the New York School of Art, and then they met again in 1914 when they were both staying in the same boarding house one summer in Oqunquit, Maine. 

Edward Hopper  "Jo Sketching in Wyoming"  1946  Whitney Museum

Josephine and Edward Hopper became friends after spending time together that summer in Maine, but did not form a romantic attachment until some years later. In 1923 they were painting together in Gloucester, MA, and for some reason at that point their relationship changed. They began courting, marrying in 1924. The marriage was a close one, but apparently full of stress and struggle. Nonetheless, they remained married until Edward Hopper's death in 1967. Edward Hopper used Josephine as his model for many paintings, and often sketched her informally on their trips. She devoted herself to managing the practical side of her husband's art career and running their home. She continued to paint and exhibit, but her work received very little notice.

Edward Hopper "Jo Painting" 1936 Whitney Museum

Above is the one oil painting Edward Hopper did of his wife at work. As it does not truly show that she is "in the act of painting" except by the intensity of the expression and uplifted arm and the title, I wouldn't normally include it, but it fits the theme. ;-) After her husband's death, Josephine Hopper donated both their artistic estates to the Whitney Museum of American Art. However, her work has rarely been shown or even seen since that time.  In fact, because her husband painted and sketched her so frequently, repeated web searches trying to find images BY Josephine Hopper turn up almost only pieces OF her. If anyone has a link to some good examples this artist's work please let me know!


Alexandra Tyng said...

Fascinating story! When I was very young and first saw and admired Edward Hopper's paintings, I got the feeling that Josephine Nivison Hopper did not fit any particular mold. Henri described that quality in her and painted her well, and so did her husband. I'd like to see her work. I wish it were more visible.

Philip Koch said...

The story I've heard is that Jo left all of Edward's and her own work to the Whitney Museum at the time of her death. Apparently Lloyd Goodrich, a curator of the Whitney, thougth Jo's work unsuitable for the collection and immediately threw all of Jo's paintings out into the trash.

Whether or not they had any real merit we'll never know. It does seem to me just from the point of view of art history they had some value. Her work could document the life she shared with Edward in New York, at their Cape Cod studio, and on their travels that it should have been preserved.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Out into the trash, really? OMG. However that one curator may have rated her work, you'd think they'd at least have the respect to de-accession her through the usual channels, auction houses and the like. This is very very sad, if so. It would explain the almost complete lack of any works by Jo, on the web or elsewhere.

I guess the answer to her question was a big fat NO.

Kate Stone said...

I love these instances where a model pops up over and over throughout her life in the work of others.

Eliza Auth said...

The Lloyd Goodrich story is appalling! If Jo hadn't been married to, and completely in the shadow of a famous husband, she might have been a respected and valued artist.