Josephine hopper: the woman behind the oil

By Lydia Aldridge

Now that most of us find ourselves faced with weeks of being stuck inside many are looking towards Edward Hopper’s famous deserted cityscapes and isolated figures as paintings of relatability and newfound ‘terrifying significance.’ Jonathan Jones of The Guardian goes as far to say Hopper is the “artist of the coronavirus age.” Certainly, pieces like ‘Nighthawks’ and ‘Cape Cod Morning’ hold a great resonance with the situation we find ourselves in now, but my attention can’t help but travel towards the true isolated figure of Hopper’s paintings, his wife.

Edward Hopper, ‘Morning Sun’ 1952, courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Josephine Hopper, known as Jo, was Edward’s muse, wife, and carer. Also an aspiring artist, Jo gave up her studio and moved into Edward’s smaller, dingier room in Washington Square when they married in 1924. This was the beginning of her gradual descent from the art world, becoming Edward’s carer – handling his correspondence and nagging him to paint. Her largest influence over his work is that she posed for all the women in his paintings. Each and every solitary woman depicted in Hopper’s paintings – from 1923 onward – were created on the basis of Jo; sometimes she is recognisable, sometimes entirely built anew as Edward chopped and changed aspects of her appearance to fit the piece. Despite this unfaltering support for his art, Edward did not return the favour. In-fact he ardently discouraged and belittled Jo’s own artistic career, mocking the few pieces she managed to create and, through creatively malicious means, reduced the conditions under which she might paint. Although she lived alone before marrying Edward, it seems Jo was more alone than ever in that claustrophobic Manhattan flat.

 

The violence which shaped and defined their relationship was often sparked by Edward’s attitude to Jo painting, and her insistence on being able to drive his car. As Olivia Laing notes in her brilliant novel ‘The Lonely City’, these potent symbols of autonomy and power were denied for Jo, she was kept securely in her place. Posed, captured, framed. This was all Jo was allowed to do in the eyes of Hopper, perhaps the intense feeling of isolation we garner from Hopper’s paintings should be attributed to his wife. Jo was only allowed to be in paintings, not paint herself, and even in most of these paintings she is unrecognisable. Beneath the altered features of these lonely women is the same woman, Jo, trapped inside each piece, recognised only for the pervading sense of loneliness which ties all Hopper’s pieces together.

Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning, 1950, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

So little of Josephine Hopper’s artistic work has survived that it is impossible to refer to her as an artist - even in history she is forever intertwined with her husband, his career subsumed hers. The heavy silence of Edward’s paintings become more sinister once we become aware of Hopper’s efforts to supress and dominate his wife. “Any talk with me sends his eyes to the clock,” Jo wrote in her diary in 1946, Hopper’s contempt towards his wife was almost theatrical in the way he managed to continuously and artfully cut her out of her own picture. She branded herself a “rather lonely creature,” the perfect muse for Hopper’s greatest works. Through mental and physical degradation, Hopper moulded his peerless model, why search for an isolated woman when you can make one?

Edward Hopper’s paintings now create a cruel conundrum for us. Hopper’s way of silencing his wife, by encasing her in the speechless stroke of a brush and refusing her the right to her own form of artistic expression resulted in timeless works of art that many find to be a great solace or piece of deep resonance. How now can we ignore the silenced woman beneath the oil.

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© Helicon Magazine 2019

University of Bristol