Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. Artist Jo Hopper was painted over and over again by her husband, Edward Hopper, during the early 20th century – but her own critically acclaimed work was forgotten.
There’s something incredibly powerful about an artist’s muse. The famous ones, from the pre- Raphaelites’ favourite model, Lizzie Siddal, to Edie Sedgwick, who worked with Andy Warhol, are icons of their era. Like many muses, Jo Hopper was an artist in her own right. Unlike many muses, Jo had been a successful painter for more than 15 years by the time her ‘musedom’ began.
When New Yorker Josephine (Jo) Nivison married Edward Hopper in 1924, she was 41, and had worked as a teacher, actor, and had a high old time at various New England art colonies. Jo was an acclaimed painter, too, featuring in shows alongside Man Ray, Modigliani and Picasso. She made a living selling sketches to newspapers: in other words, a successful artist.
Her husband was less so. When six of Jo’s watercolours were selected for an exhibition, she put in a good word for Hopper and, as a result, he sold his first painting in a decade. With Jo’s input and encouragement over the following years, Hopper’s career went interstellar while Jo’s declined, overshadowed – or perhaps subsumed – by his.
Today, it is for her appearance in his paintings that Jo is perhaps best known. Jo was the model for the Hopper pieces that have come to define American modernism. In his depictions of lonely urban scenes she is the ever-present female figure, watching, waiting, alone in his bright landscapes. She is every woman in every Hopper painting from 1923 until his death in 1967. She is the sun-drenched lady in Summertime (1943) and the pensive usherette in New York Movie (1939). She is the lonely coffeedrinker in Automat (1927) and a customer in his most famous work, Nighthawks (1942). She also came up with the latter painting’s name.
Sharing a tiny Manhattan apartment, the Hoppers embodied the artistic cliché of the tempestuous relationship: Jo wrote in her diaries that they both could be violent. However, her work behind the scenes for Hopper can be seen in the ledgers in which she catalogued his paintings, adding her own – sometimes critical, sometimes flattering – comments.
Did he read and learn from them? After all, it was her work that inspired Hopper’s colour palettes and her encouragement that started him working in watercolours. Several of Jo’s paintings, such as Shacks (1923) and Movie Theater – Gloucester (1926-7), featured subjects that Hopper later revisited. Managing his correspondence and liaising with gallerists, Jo felt his success belonged to them both, referring to Hopper’s paintings as “their children”.
Jo died in 1968, a year after her husband, and many of her paintings were thought lost. However, last year the Provincetown Art Association and Museum acquired 96 of Hopper’s works and 69 drawings and watercolours by Jo. The resulting show, The Hoppers, showed their collected works together for the very first time.
Images: Josie Jammet / Getty Images