Great art is the outward expression of an inner life of the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.
Edward Hopper, 19531(p8)
In the summer of 1923, petite Josephine Verstille Nivison (1883-1968), just over 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, and Edward Hopper (1882-1967), just under 6 feet 5 inches and lean and lanky, began painting together in Gloucester, Mass, a summer art colony at one of America's oldest seaports. Her roommate did not approve of him, so Hopper would come by early in the morning and toss pebbles at her window to rouse her for the day's activities.2(p168) Neither of them had married although he was 41 years old and she was 40 years old. Born in New York City, she was a graduate of the Normal College of the City of New York (now Hunter College) and had retired on disability as a teacher from the New York public school system after contracting diphtheria while teaching on a children's ward; she was now actively pursuing a career as an artist, specializing in watercolor. Born in Nyack, NY, he described himself as Hudson River Dutch. He was a full-time artist, and although he had recent success as an engraver and had won prizes, his only sale of a painting, Sailing, had occurred 10 years earlier at the acclaimed Armory Show in New York City. Both admired Robert Henri (1865-1929) and had studied with him at the New York School of Art, sometimes known as the Ashcan School to emphasize its focus on realistic American scenes, alleys, tenements: everyday life in a large city.
Cover: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), American. Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas, 84.1 × 152.4 cm. Friends of American Art Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.
Their differences in personality were even more striking than their differences in stature. Hopper was introverted, noted for a dry wit, and “famous for his monumental silences,” expressing himself “tersely but with weighted exactness in a slow reluctant monotone.”3(p57) Nivison was extraverted and articulate and interested in dramatics; she was lively and had strong opinions.4 Both were fluent in French and drawn to the same French poets and writers. When Edward quoted a poem by Paul Verlaine that summer, to his surprise Jo completed it from memory.2 That summer, working together resulted in a lasting change in Edward's work. Previously, he had used watercolor primarily in commercial illustrations, but now as they painted together, he found a new spontaneity in watercolor and began to improvise. When they returned to New York, Jo was asked to display 6 of her watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and suggested that he submit his. Six of his were accepted and hung adjacent to her paintings. Edward's watercolors were the highlights of the show, described as “exhilarating”; one watercolor, The Mansard Roof, was purchased for the museum's collection.2
That winter, Edward's Christmas card to Jo showed them in a Parisian apartment looking out at a moonlit sky. It was accompanied by verses from a Verlaine poem, The White Moon, which the poet had composed for his own fiancée.2 The verses describe that exquisite evening hour when a gentle peacefulness descends as the moon illuminates the heavens. Following their romantic courtship, Edward and Jo were married on July 9, 1924, and honeymooned in Gloucester, where their love had blossomed. They remained together for more than 40 years, and although they were inseparable and deeply attached, there was considerable conflict and mutual abuse in their relationship.4 Their verbal frankness with one another led others, particularly her confidants, who knew of her lingering sense of resentment toward him, to question how they could remain together.3 Jo was a virgin at the time of the marriage and wrote in her diary about marital conflicts and her anger about their differing attitudes toward sexual relations.4 Although she continued to paint, she often felt that she was sacrificing her work to support his. They lived in a 74-step, 4th-floor walk-up on the top floor at 3 Washington Square North in Greenwich Village, and both had skylit studios; this was their primary residence for the rest of their lives. Reflecting his puritanical attitudes, Edward hauled up coal to heat the potbelly stove, first on foot and later by dumbwaiter. Eventually, they built a summer home in Cape Cod.
Much of what is known about their private relationship is drawn from her diary2; one author5 describes it as her posthumous revenge. Jo was in constant dialogue with Edward as they read together and attended literary events and his only female model for his many nude (often naked), and sometimes erotic, paintings of women. As his manager, she kept a meticulous account of his work. He was methodical, slowly and deliberately completing his paintings. Edward was drawn to philosophy, especially to Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Self-Reliance6:
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility. . . . 2
Biographer Gail Levin proposes that the Hoppers'
acute anguish in personal life transmuted into gripping art. . . . Their pictorial idiom, at once familiar and estranged, touches our memories, hopes, uncertainties—the yearning and disquiet of modern lives.2(p xvii)
It is that modern disquiet that is the subject of many of Edward's paintings. His realism has an edge of solitude about it. Through careful attention to perspective (line and space), color, and light, he produced narrative moments, scenes that captured reflective silences and apparent emotional retreats into solitude that engage the viewer's active imagination. He read widely in philosophy, literature, poetry, and psychology, once drawing a self-caricature of himself as a thin child with an oversized head and large eyeglasses holding 2 books under his arm, titled Jung and Freud.2(p274) Hopper, though not clinically depressed, had a melancholic temperament7 and suffered “painter's block”; Benzedrine was prescribed by his physician for his “depression, fatigue and lethargy.”2(p305)
A leitmotif that runs throughout his work is that of a man and woman who appear estranged, pensive, and reflective; the best known of these is his painting Nighthawks. It was begun in 1941 shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at a time of national crisis. Hopper had written to his close friend Guy Pène du Bois the previous summer that painting could be a refuge from wartime worries if one can get his “dispersed mind together long enough to concentrate on it.”8(p185) And concentrate he did, Jo wrote:
Ed refused to take any interest in our very likely prospect of being bombed—and we live right under glass sky lights. . . . He . . . only jeers at me for packing a knapsack . . . in case we ran to race out of doors in our nighties. . . . He's doing a new painting and can't be bothered. . . . 4(p186)
In Nighthawks, 3 people sit in an all-night diner with a sign above it, “Only 5¢, Phillies No. 10 Am[erican] [machine rolled] Cigars.” It is modeled on a diner on Greenwich Avenue in Manhattan. The scene is lit by the harsh light from the diner that spills out onto a quiet green street; dreary red buildings fill the background. The viewer looks in through a curved glass window; no exit from the diner is apparent. A man wearing a gray hat with a black band and holding a cigarette looks straight ahead; the counterman looks up toward him but their eyes do not meet. A red-headed woman extends her arm toward the man, but they do not touch; she gazes at a book of matches. The couple are mirrored by 2 coffee urns. A lone man sits further down the cherrywood counter with his back turned away. These are the nighthawks in a setting that elicits dramatic, some would say predatory, tension. The title was Jo's idea. Edward posed himself in a mirror as the model for the 2 men and Jo posed for the woman; the painting was completed in about 6 weeks on January 21, 1942. It was purchased that year by the Art Institute of Chicago and won its Ada S. Garrett Prize. Its capacity to elicit the imagination of the viewer is attested to by several novels and by a 2-act play that interprets its meaning from one generation to the next, part I in 1943 and part II in 1983, 40 years later. The play highlights loneliness, the need for personal support, and the sense of sleepless isolation. Part I focuses on race and loneliness during World War II, and part II emphasizes stereotypes in relationships and race and focuses on trust and meaningful friendship.9
Edward's final painting, The Comedians, was completed 2 years before his death, when Edward and Jo were both in their eighties. He shows them as the young lovers Pierrot and Pierrette (Columbine) from the commedia dell’arte taking their final bows3(p139); the 2 clown lovers harken back to the French symbolist poetry they read during their courtship. Pierrot loves Pierrette, whose affections run hot and cold. When his affections are reciprocated, they are shown sitting together on the crescent of the moon. Unlike the figures in Nighthawks, they hold hands and gesture toward one another in unison—similarly dressed in white, eyes blackened, hands joined, lyrical in their movements; they create a sense of cohesion between them. His left hand gestures toward her and she to him; he stands forward, she slightly back as he appears to present her.3(p139) It appears that despite their differences in temperament, their abundant squabbles, and the sometimes seething resentment recorded in her diary, at the end of their lives they expressed a genuine appreciation for one another. After his death, Jo wrote to a friend that their 42 years together had been “perfection (of its own snappy kind).”2(p580)
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