Josephine Nivison Hopper
oil on canvas
In a 1906 portrait of Josephine Nivison, painted while she was a twenty-two-year-old student at the New York School of Art, her artist’s smock slips from her shoulder like the falling strap of Madame X’s gown. This is teacher Robert Henri’s portrait of the artist as a young woman; one suggestive detail, sure, along with aspects of Jo’s character he can’t help but capture: her steady gaze of steely resolve, the way she holds her brushes like a divining rod.
This is when Jo Nivison meets Edward Hopper, though they do not make much of their first meeting, or even their second. When they graduate, Jo keeps herself in cigarettes by selling drawings to places like the New York Tribune, the Evening Post, the Chicago Herald Examiner. In the 1920 New York City Directory, Jo lists herself as an artist, and she is no slouch. She shows her paintings alongside work by Picasso and Man Ray. In that same directory, Edward Hopper calls himself an illustrator.
Jo and Ed don’t link up their wagons until 1923. It is the third time their paths have crossed, and by now they are both in their forties. Maybe they can help each other. Six of Jo’s watercolors appear that year in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum; she puts in a word for Ed with the curators, and they buy one of his paintings. It is the first he has sold since the Armory Show of 1913, ten years before.
This is Ed’s tipping point. Next, he’s given a sellout solo show by the gallery that represents him for the rest of his life, and Jo becomes Ed’s only model. She creates characters for his work, transforms herself into women alone, idle, waiting. She is woman in a train compartment, woman in the office at night, at a New York movie, a woman in the sun. She is painting, too—she always has—but there are murmurs that Jo is riding Ed’s coattails onto the gallery walls. In 1938, there is a group show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and in 1939, another at the Golden Gate International Exhibition. Here, Jo’s oil painting “Chez Hopper” appears, and it is a portrait of Ed for once, in which his feet rest on a coal stove. This painting, as is the case with most of Jo’s work, has been lost.
But that’s rushing ahead to the end of the story. The beginning, and the middle, is that Jo and Ed are always painting and always fighting. They work together in their sometimes home on the Cape and their other-times home, a skylight-bright fourth-floor walk-up on Washington Square. Ed hauls coal and tin cans of beef stew up the stairs. If only his wife would do less painting and more cooking. Nobody likes her work, he says. He means he does not care for it.
Their fights, as Jo records in her diaries, are vicious. Jo scratches Ed and “[bites] him to the bone.” He slaps her, bangs her head against a shelf, colors her with bruises. On their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, she tells him they deserve a medal for distinguished combat, and he complies with a coat of arms made from a rolling pin and ladle.
It is true: Jo is a lady flower painter, but things are not only as they seem. Sometimes she is thinking of her dead friends, other women. She calls the 1948 painting of a brittle, drooping arrangement set before an open window, “Obituary.” “She intentionally disregarded the dominant male aesthetic,” the Hopper historian Gail Levin writes. “Her subject matter seems self-consciously female.” In her early seventies, Jo paints a self-portrait in which she wears earrings, a necklace, and a pink lace bra, which she purchased for herself as a birthday present from Ed. It was “the most expensive thing of the kind I’ve ever owned,” she wrote in her diary. The lingerie is “perishable & does nothing specially for me anymore than another layer of skin.”
She helps him still. Not only sole model but sometimes agent, social secretary, and record keeper. In dime-store account books, she describes each of his paintings, marks when it leaves the apartment on loan, and enters sale prices in looping black script. She writes, too, the circumstances of their creation, a diarist’s snapshot of their lives beyond the frame. There is art in those entries, too. “Begun cold, very early, Oct 1,” she writes of “A Woman in the Sun.” Ed writes, in sharp, back-slanting pencil, “The Wise Tramp.” “Tragic figure of small woman,” Jo adds.
“Of course,” she wrote in her diary, “if there can be room for only one of us, it must undoubtedly be he. I can be glad and grateful for that.” Of course, and without doubt. Though note her verb tense. Even in the future conditional, she is bound by the times.
They call their work their children, only some are more wanted in the marriage than others. Ed shows “New York Movie,” to a gallerist. In it, Jo takes the form of an usher, leaning languidly against a red-draped wall. It is “greeted like a newborn heir.” Jo’s own work life is aborted; she writes of her paintings as “poor little stillborn infants,” or “little bastards.” They were “too nice to have been such friendless little Cinderellas.” She tells a gallerist she doesn’t like them much, but she loves them as only a mother could: “How sad for them if even I forsake them!”
She need not have worried. In 1968, Martin Luther King is murdered, student protestors sit in for Black Power and an end to Vietnam, and Jo dies, bequeathing the entirety of Ed’s work and hers to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The gift of some three thousand pieces is without precedent in the history of museums at the time. The Whitney had been founded fewer than forty years before by the artist and patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—not a lady flower painter but a “socialite sculptor.” The Whitney decides to keep three of Jo’s paintings in the permanent collection, Gail Levin writes in 2003’s Singular Women: Writing the Artist, and “trashed the rest, procuring no documentary photographs and leaving only a list.” They see no intrinsic value in “Buick in California Canyon,” oil on canvas, 1957. Or “Goldenrod & Milkweed in Glorietta Peach can,” oil on canvas, 1965. They do not see the value in preserving the history in which the perspective is reversed and Ed is the subject. Imagine “Edward Hopper Reading Robert Frost,” oil on canvas, circa 1955. That will have to do. These paintings never see the light of a gallery.
Now it is 1970, and Valerie Solanas is in prison for shooting Andy Warhol, and women leave raw eggs and boxes of Tampax on the Whitney’s staircase. They want to know: Where are the women in a survey show purported to represent the American art scene. If only they’d known where to look. Littered about town in New York City hospital lobbies, offices, and reception areas, they could have found the framed works Jo entrusted to the Whitney, regifted to spaces where women wait, pass through, and never arrive.
Let’s call my mother a creator. For an entire summer, all four of her children wear head-to-toe tie-dye; we dip ourselves in a backyard plastic baby pool of blue swirling water. There is a frugal dollhouse constructed from shoeboxes turned on their sides and lit with Christmas lights; Barbie sleeps on a waterbed, sloshing around with Ken on a Ziploc bag full of water. My mother sews slippery satin Halloween costumes for a pink princess and wrap skirts for herself that shrink and expand along with her biological destiny. She writes charming letters that ramble, grocery lists, love notes to my father scrawled on the cardboard sheets the dry cleaner lays inside his extra-starched shirts. And then there are the children: two girls, two boys.
There are creations that do not fit in this rubric. An essay lingers in a Stop and Shop bag stuffed full of papers. “Approaching 40 and Contemplating New Boobs,” is an attempt to reckon with the mess of her life. On her clacking typewriter late at night, I thought she was writing graduate-school papers about Freud. Instead, there is a portrait of a family, in which one prominent drama is my older brother’s teenage rebellions. He pierces his ear with my mother’s diamond stud, then joyrides an old station wagon around town—no license yet—while his passenger shoots out streetlights with a BB gun. My father asks the judge to serve him a hundred hours of community service. At home, my parents call him “the prisoner.” When he rides shotgun with a policeman on three night shifts, he successfully has the shit scared out of him. On the third night of his sentence, as my mother rocks the baby in the nursery, the prisoner crouches by her side, rests his head on her shoulder, and begins to crumble.
“I can’t stand your being mad at me anymore,” he says, and she assures him it is going to be okay. “It’s not like TV,” she says. “People always get caught.” Her husband has a story for everything: condoms in the jeans pocket, women’s panties in his gym bag, plane tickets in another woman’s name. How can she write a novel when her own life is such artless trash?
The kids are her best work.
Allison Young Conley
Note from Wife to Husband
Pen on dry cleaner card stock
“A busy, noisy, messy household is exactly what I want. The simultaneous clamoring of too many children legitimately demanding my attention thrills me. The work that I am doing now with our kids is the only significant work I will do in my life. That I seem to do it adequately but not brilliantly is, of course, regretful. I do not want a spotless home, I do not want an orderly desk every day, I do not want lots of time on my hands, quiet, or more money. If our lives stalled at this stage, with the hassle of piano practice and a nursing baby, I would be content. I do not want to wait for you. I am happy just like this. That is why I am giving you this cashier’s check for $1,000,000—so you can be happy, too.”
Violet Lukens and Sarah McColl
Eric Carle Museum Rubber Toys in Suds
“Come on guys, come on big guys, come on little guys.” We are in the bath, my niece Violet and me. She asks about that bath toy, the dark one between my legs. I explain, and she nods, considering. Out of the bath, eyes wide, she says, “Let’s get all cozy and do skin-on-skin, okay?” Her mother, my sister, is at the hospital trying to push out another little one, a boy this time. He pooped in the womb. When her water broke, it splashed all over the bathroom, and she left her black nylon nightgown on the slate floor. After dropping Violet off at school, I scrubbed the last bits of the gray-green fluid off the toilet and walls. I am playing pretend, too.
The next morning, I walk beside Violet as she rides her scooter to school; she wears my soft gray gloves and dutifully brakes at corners. A woman approaches us on her bicycle all bundled up. I am sipping my coffee. “Beautiful!” she shouts as she passes. I like to think she has mistaken us for a different kind of woman and girl. The kind who, if their lives stalled at this moment, would be content.
“How come you got big nurties but you can’t make milk?” Violet asks that night as we snug into the pillows reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Little Brother. She explains it herself before I can answer. “You don’t have a baby because you can’t make milk,” she reasons. I don’t have a baby because I am selfish and because I am poor, because I am scared, and because I am trying to make something else first, something my own that cannot be lost or destroyed by a man’s whim. That I seem to do it adequately and not brilliantly is, of course, regretful. Even this approach is not foolproof. “I don’t make milk because I don’t have a baby yet,” I say. Violet pulls my nightgown down for a closer look. “They’re not that big,” she revises.
By restoring to men—in critically conscious ways—their private and family lives and their embeddedness in their bodies and in nature, we can also move, importantly, toward defeminizing and so upwardly revaluing those realms of experience; we can move toward a society where what is coded as feminine will not reflexively be counted as secondary. —Anna Chave, Minimalism and Biography, 2000
Jo’s story has another ending. In 2002, the art historian Elizabeth Thompson Colleary secures a grant to archivally rehouse the Hopper papers at the Whitney. She writes about her findings in “Josephine Nivison Hopper: Some Newly Discovered Works,” in Woman’s Art Journal: some two hundred paintings by Jo, watercolors and a few oils, many of them still framed in gold. What marks Jo’s work, Colleary writes, is its boldness—“glowing, lyrical color” and “her loose handling of pigment.” Jo is free and fluid. She mixes paint directly onto the smooth, polished surface of paper and allows the colors to puddle. The address of Jo’s pre-Ed Ninth Street studio is written on the back of the boards. Jo’s best work, Colleary says, is from before she married. Under the direction of the museum staff, Colleary catalogues Jo’s work; today, two images are available to the public through an online search of the museum’s website.
Now meet the Reverend Sanborn, a friend of the Hoppers who helped care for the couple in their later years. He, too, has been hanging on to Jo’s work. In the summer of 2000, he loans twenty-two of Jo’s watercolors to the Historical Society Museum of Truro, for a show that Colleary curates. They are lively, spirited paintings. “Art historically, it’s a significant body of work, ”Colleary says. “We had a good deal of affection for Jo,” the Reverend told an Orlando paper. “We admired her and devoted most of our life in trying to save this mostly for her.”
Then the Reverend giveth again. In the summer of 2017, the Whitney announces their chance for a do-over, when Sanborn hands over a Hopper “treasure trove” “so carefully and respectfully preserved”—nearly four thousand letters, notebooks, photographs, and personal papers. In a press release from the museum, the donation is called “the holy grail of primary source material for Edward Hopper and his milieu. Its importance cannot be overstated.” Is this the restoration of men’s private and family lives? Is Jo a milieu?
As the Hoppers’ home on the Cape changes hands, it reveals another treasure trove. The house passes from Jo to her friend, Mary. Jo called her gal pal reading group, who gathered for Greek tragedy, the Euripides gang. But everyone in this story is dying, even the Reverend is gone, and now it’s Mary’s turn. In 2017, her sons inherit the house and the artwork inside it; they donate ninety-six drawings by Ed and sixty-nine drawings and watercolors by Jo, along with twenty-two of her diaries, to the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. The museum is thrilled. Before the donation, they had only one Hopper and frequently managed visitor disappointment upon realizing that painting was by Jo. Now their permanent collection is chockablock with both artists’ work, and the debut summer exhibition draws an art critic from the Boston Globe.
“There are a handful of drab oil paintings by Jo,” she writes. “Judging by the works in this show, it’s no wonder her career sputtered.”
Isn’t it though?
Wonder is a woman whose brush travels from palette to painting despite every attempt to elbow her from the easel. On the Cape, when Ed and Jo paint in their Buick, they push the driver’s seat forward, Ed stretches his legs in back, and Jo scrunches herself up on the passenger side. “What has become of my world,” Jo wrote in her diary. “It’s evaporated—I just trudge around in Eddie’s.”
But the lady flower painter rises, each day stands in the cold clear light of morning. Tragic figure of small woman. She herself wonders: when and how come, why and, in the end, why not. In the afternoon, her hands smell of turpentine and a peanut-butter sandwich. She signs her letters, “Cheerily, Jo.” When her friends are feeling down, she mails them lines of her favorite poems. These are lyrics she has relied on herself, she tells them, and she underlines the last line for emphasis:
Serene I fold my hands and wait
Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea
I rave no more ’gainst time or fate,
For lo! My own shall come to me.
Sarah McColl is the author of a forthcoming literary memoir. She is a MacDowell Colony Fellow and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination for her essay about singer-songwriter Connie Converse, published in StoryQuarterly.