(Josephine Verstille ›Jo‹ Hopper geb. Nivison)
Born March 18, 1883 in Manhattan
Died March 6, 1968 in Manhattan
Josephine Nivison made one huge mistake in her life – she married Edward Hopper ( 1924). She lost her friends and was not accepted in the circle of Hopper’s friends; she lost her art, for Hopper’s art was more important. She lost her joy, her youth, her creativity – “why don’t I paint? Why indeed? On what – from out of what inner gladness?” (Levin, p. 321) And she was tied to – in her words – “a prize hog” (Levin, p.304) until he died. He discouraged her, made fun of her, abused her, denigrated her, disparaged her - again and again – did everything to destroy her existence, “to negate my entity” (Levin, p. 303). She lost her identity as an artist and became Hopper’s wife, and if she was perceived as an artist at all, she was tragically associated with the conservative art of Hopper and his friends. “Perhaps had she not been married to Hopper, she might have tried to paint abstractly in order to be au courant” (Levin, p.416), for when she met Hopper, she was au courant, her friends were avantgarde artists, she had exhibited in Paris and was ahead of him as an artist. But when she died, Hopper was a renowned artist and she, although she had painted her whole life, almost unknown.
Her second huge mistake – at the end of her life – was that she left her works to the Whitney, a museum which proudly administered the estate of Edward Hopper and disposed of the majority of her life’s work. On the Whitney web page there are two works by her. According to Gail Levin, who worked on the Hopper artistic estate from 1976 – 1984 as a curator at the Whitney, there were in existence six oil paintings on wood by Josephine Hopper and a few works on paper that were falsely attributed to Edward Hopper. 96 paintings by Nivison had been given as gifts to New York City hospitals and had disappeared within three years. The question remains: where did hundreds of canvases by Nivison go? The Whitney Museum still owes us an answer.
Josephine Verstille Nivison was born in Manhattan in 1883; her mother was “an independent spirit” who allowed her to do what she wanted, her father a talented but unsuccessful musician. Her family life was chaotic. Nivison attended the Normal College of New York (later Hunter College) at 17; a tuition-free institution, its purpose was to prepare young women to be teachers. Nivison took four years of Latin, six years of French, English literature and drama; her drawings were published in the College Paper and in the Yearbook. She graduated with a B.A. But instead of teaching she continued her studies at the New York School of Art and was soon convinced that she wanted to be a painter. She went to Holland with her art professor Henri, took his courses there, traveled to Paris and Italy and was exposed to modern art. Back in New York she continued studying with Henri at the Art Students League. She then taught for over a decade at various elementary schools, but also continued painting and kept in contact with the Greenwich Village artistic avantgarde. In 1914 she exhibited for the first time in a group show with Man Ray, William Zorach, Stuart Davis, and Charles Demuth. She was also interested in modern dance and theater and had small parts on the stage with the Washington Square Players. During the summer months she regularly visited artists’ colonies in New England. In 1920 she identified herself as an artist in the New York telephone directory; she moved into a small spartan studio and immediately put on an exhibition of her works there. Two years later she showed her water colors in the New Gallery along with other artists, among them Modigliani, Picasso, Magritte and William Zorach. In the catalogue her water colors were said to “add a gay note of color.”
In the summer of 1923, when she was 40 years old, Nivison met Edward Hopper in the artists’ colony of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Hopper, who considered himself an Illustrator, was relatively successful with his etchings. They became friends and worked side by side. Edward adopted not only a new medium from her, water color, but also her themes. In fall of this year Nivison was invited by the Brooklyn Museum to contribute six of her water colors to an exhibit of American and European art. She suggested Hopper to the organizers and they included six of his new Gloucester water colors. The museum bought one of his works – he had not sold anything in ten years. From now on he considered himself to be an artist, from here on his career thrived. For Nivison however, a new phase in her life began. The next summer they followed his wish to go to Gloucester again and married there. Edward was almost 42 and Jo was 41 years old.
The conflicts began at once. Edward was jealous of Jo’s cat! Jo kept her studio. Edward expected her to be a housewife but Jo hated cooking and the kitchen. She was supposed to concentrate entirely on him. She invited her friends to her studio so as not to disturb Edward. She called him egotistical. He drew hostile caricatures of her and her cat. Their sexual life was sheer horror with rape and anal sex – “attacks from the rear” as Jo called it ( Levin, p. 180); she had entered marriage as a virgin. But she kept up her self-denial and love for Edward, for whom only his own sexual desires existed.
On her own motivation Jo started to keep records of Edward’s works, titles, exhibits, sales, prices, etc., and she took over his correspondence. Further functions would follow in the course of time.
In 1924 three water colors of Nivison were included in a big show of American art in Paris (Levin, p. 183). In the same year and by sheer accident, Hopper found a New York gallery owner, Frank K. M. Rehn, who represented him from then on. At the first show 16 works by Hopper were sold and Rehn became an enthusiastic promoter. The reviews were positive; Hopper began painting more in oil and left off making illustrations and etchings. Jo continued to show her works under her own name but gave up her studio one year after her marriage and moved in with Hopper. Her works had to be stored in the basement of Edward’s studio and thus were no longer accessible without going to some trouble.
Jo began to model for Edward.
In 1926 Jo exhibited – for the first time under the name Josephine Hopper – at the Whitney. In 1927 she showed seven water colors at the Whitney Studio Club, among them MOVIE THEATRE, a topic which was later taken over by Hopper.
Step by step Jo’s identity as an artist was changing. It was evident in her change of names from Josephine Nivison to Josephine Hopper, then to Josephine N. Hopper, then back again to Josephine Hopper, till at the age of 81 she wanted to return to her maiden name.
Only three years after her marriage Jo’s career was overshadowed by Edward’s. Since she no longer had her own studio, she had to accommodate herself to his needs. Moreover, he drew a demarcation line in his studio which she was not allowed to cross; she could not borrow paint from him nor show her pictures to visitors. But she could provide him with ideas for paintings. Her work for him increased: virtually his secretary now, she managed his growing correspondence and prepared every aspect of his shows down to the lighting in the galleries. If his reputation were challenged, she became his defender; above all she had the obligation to cheer him up when he was tired and depressed and could not work. At such times she would motivate him with her ideas, start a picture and paint until he felt like taking up the brush and paint himself.
Eight years after their marriage Jo realized that her life as an artist had been broken: “For the female of the species, it’s a fatal thing for an artist to marry, her consciousness is too much disturbed. She can no longer live sufficiently within her self to produce. But it’s hard to accept this.”(Levin, p.246)
“I live in the constant expectation of his prohibition.”(Levin, p.261)
“Ed is the very center of my universe…If I’m on the point of being very happy, he sees to it that I’m not. If I am happy ever and not too exhausted, I might want to paint….” (Levin, p. 262)
After twelve years of marriage their conflicts were intensifying.. Edward showed open contempt for Jo as an artist; he humiliated her to the point of physical altercations. He had problems with his work, experienced creative blocks, became lethargic and depressed. The more frustrated he became about not being able to work, the more hostile he became, humiliating her, mocking her and her work, and tormenting her with comments such as: If she had a show no one would show up. That he beat her was not as bad as his meanness, she claimed. (“But swatting isn’t as bad as meanness.” Levin,p.340) But she kept on motivating him, stimulating him, cheering him up so that he would start to paint.
Jo saw how male jurors excluded her and other women painters who were married to male painters, e.g Marguerite Zorach (Levin, p. 460). Edward was in a jury that refused Jo’s contribution – he did not support her, quite the opposite; he never recommended her, quite the opposite. He introduced her to gallerists and collectors as his wife, not as an artist.
After twenty years of marriage – “20 years is a long time never to collect one crumb.”(Levin, p. 367) – Jo saw that Edward had never lifted a finger for her, that he wanted to eradicate her (Levin, p.373). She was deeply hurt. She felt “left out of everything since the day I married him 21 years ago” (Levin, p. 386). The wounds increased. Again and again she was discouraged, criticized, corrected, rebuffed. Still she took some of his advice – to her detriment, for Hopper’s realisms and nationalism has become reactionary in the meantime. It was the time of abstract expressionism. Hopper impeded her work as well as her friendships and invitations. “I used to have so many friends” (Levin, p. 412).
“…my heart has withered and that’s why all my pictures are born dead.” (Levin, p.443). She also called her pictures “my little bastards.”
Nivison was not only sad and disappointed, however, but also angry. Her anger was directed especially toward the Whitney: ”Well there has been enough heartbreak for me at the Whitney, a museum financed and run by two women, who hated women, so this museum of Amer. Art was to catch men and negate women, let in a few homely ones to side step the omissions being too marked. It so contrived by the great wealth behind it to acquire immense power. Not to be included in its shows, let alone collections, was to be ostracized in the art market. This a bitter experience for many so excluded.“ (Levin, p.458-60) She mentioned the artists Marguerite Zorach, Theresa Bernstein, Felicia Marsh and Helen Sloan. She was also angry with Hopper, his egotism, his sadism, his dominance; she called him a monster. “He is without any human sympathy…to all intents and purposes, he is dead. As a human being he does not qualify.”(Levin, p.476) But she loved him and could not live without him: “I can scarcely stand E.H., but how possibly live without him.”(Levin, p.491)
In 1958, at 75, Nivison finally experienced a major turn of fortune: the gallery owner Herman Gulack selected ten of her works for a spring exhibit at his Greenwich Gallery. She was ecstatic, supremely happy, that someone liked her pictures. ”I have such a beautiful serene wall, all to myself and the pictures feel they have gone to heaven.” (Levin, p. 515) Her self-confidence increased. For the attention-starved artist, this exhibit was the high point of her life.
But life with Hopper continued for another ten years; he competed with her and was jealous of any praise she received; he called her ‘”a pleasant little talent” (Levin, p.557). He never sent visitors up to her cold studio. No wonder that most of them did not know that she painted and considered her an amateur.
Edward Hopper died in May 1967 at almost 85 years of age.
Jo: “What was perfection together is a heart break alone.”(Levin, p.579).
Josephine Nivison died on March 6, 1968, twelve days before her 85th birthday.
Nivison fought her whole life for her identity as an artist. She wanted to be an artist no matter what it cost her. Only few women artists were smart enough to choose the right man for that purpose: one who would support them, sustain them, and especially who did not paint himself. Nivison chose, as most women do, the wrong man. But how could she make such a bad choice and choose a sadist who forced her to anal intercourse, who denigrated her and her art, who discouraged and impeded her a whole life long? Was it the indoctrination of her times – love is the most important thing in a woman’s life, is the essence of her life, love is faithful, love is eternity, love forgets and forgives all – but remember Louise Bourgeois who said: I forgive nothing and I forget nothing; that is the motto which nourishes my work.
Nivison loved the monster Hopper to the end, a love that remained constant and blocked out all he did to her. She loved the man who actively hindered her art. How many other women artists were actively hindered by their painter husband before someone could discover – as was the case with Nivison – that she is better than her husband. “Two cannot be artists,” the wife of a quite mediocre German artist replied to my question whether she was also an artist. After two small works she had discontinued painting. But perhaps she would have been better than her husband? Why did Nivison tie herself to Hopper and why did she hang on to him? Why did Modersohn-Becker return from Paris to her husband Modersohn in Worpswede?. Love came first. Love or art – not to have to choose any more. What man has to make that choice? The male artist profits by marriage. Women artists who give their lives to art, put art above love, remain frequently without a husband – even today. That was not possible for Nivison – she was caught up in the male system as the other women artists of her time, as were the few women gallery owners and female critics who had to be successful within the male system. They lived in the time before the second Women’s Movement.
I wish Nivison and Carmen Herrera had known each other; both of them lived in Manhattan. I wish they had been friends, the old wise Nivison and the young Herrera just returning from Paris. Or even earlier, when Herrera came to new York from Cuba. They could have supported each other, they could have smiled together about the strange happenings in the art world which they both saw through. Two strong women, devoted to painting, who waited and waited, for acknowledgement, for recognition, for a show, for a line in a review, for minimal support, for a single sale, for a bit of love.
After seeing Jo’s works in the Greenwich Gallery the critic Robert Coates asked Edward Hopper: ”Why has your wife been hidden under bushes all this time?” Hopper’s answer was: “She is very bitter about this.” And Coates responded: “My wife is bitter, too. She writes.” (Levin, p.516)
My deep gratitude goes to Gail Levin, Hopper expert, for giving – in her Hopper biography – so much space to the diaries of Nivison, which are otherwise not publicly accessible, so that we could get to know Nivison in her Intelligence and humanity and the tragedy of her life. My short biography here rests solely on Levin’s information and her research and is in large parts nothing but excerpts from her detailed account.
Author: Senta Trömel-Plötz
Literature & Sources
For additional material, see the German version.
Levin, Gail (1998): Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press
————(1995): Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonne. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Bernadac, Marie-Laure and Hans-Ulrich Obrist ( eds.) ( 2001): Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father, Schriften und Interviews. Zuerich: Ammann Verlag.
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