By Brenda Haroutunian
Imagine how you would feel if your partner made demeaning caricatures of you and deliberately left them for you to find. Would your reaction prompt you to throw them away? Or, would you save them?
The recent scrutiny of Edward Hopper’s caricatures, and his calamitous marriage, raises these kinds of questions. Josephine Hopper saved her husband’s insulting caricatures of her. She even showed them to her friends. If words often failed Hopper, pictures didn’t. He was expert at telling his wife what he thought of her in caricature form. He pictured her alternatively as a pitiful homemaker, a madwoman, a narcissist, and worst of all, a bad artist. Hopper apparently made quick sketches meant to express his disapproval and then left them for her to find. The gesture was intended to correct her defect.
While the caricatures skillfully communicated his impression of her, they mostly failed to initiate the intended action. He wanted to change her, but she wasn’t willing to conform to his ideal image of a wife or a woman. Instead, they stoked resentment and outrage. Apparently, the sketches mocking her ability as an artist scraped mercilessly at an already throbbing sore spot. Josephine Nivison was a celebrated artist before she met Hopper. Her paintings were shown in prestigious exhibitions featuring some of the most celebrated artists of the day. In 1924, The New York Times praised her over Georgia O’Keefe and John Singer Sargent in a review of a group show at the Brooklyn Museum.
Edward became a legacy while Jo became a caricature. He borrowed from her lively palette and became a runaway success. When Josephine introduced Hopper to the curators of the group show, they bought a painting, gave him a solo show, and then represented him throughout his triumphant career. By contrast, Jo’s painting floundered. She tried without success to emulate his masterful style and failed thereafter to regain her footing. Jo mourned this loss. She regarded these failed paintings as her “poor little stillborn infants.”
I find it incredible that Jo Hopper not only saved, but also showed these humiliating portraits to guests. Jo explained that this was how Hopper expressed his disapproved of her. She also spoke of how she felt when she found them, of hurt and outrage. Furthermore, she said that Hopper wouldn’t listen to her when she tried to tell him how the pictures made her feel, leaving her alone to vent in her diary.
The recent scrutiny of the Hopper’s marriage reminds me of driving past a car crash. The exhibition of 16 caricatures at the artist’s boyhood home in Nyaack, NY, along with Stephen May’s article “Scenes from Edward Hopper’s marriage” featured in the March edition of ARTnews, presents an unsettling picture of mutual emotional and physical abuse. The couple apparently beat each other up throughout their marriage. They jokingly agreed that they deserved a medal for distinguished combat on their silver anniversary.
I wish that Jo Hopper would have incinerated the hurtful portraits along with the bitter resentment that boiled within her. Surely, it would have been more cathartic than writing in her diary. Moreover, in disposing of them, she would have symbolically erased the identity that Hopper had created of her. In preserving the caricatures, Jo implicitly consented that they were of value, that they were worthy of exhibition in a museum.
“Isn’t it nice to have a wife who paints” Jo once asked. “It stinks,” Hopper returned.
This rhetorical conversation between the Hoppers indicate that he didn’t value Jo as an artist. Hopper sabotaged her efforts in pictures and in words. Jo seems to have had a stake in the preservation of the caricatures, a motivation more powerful than her righteous indignation. I suspect that their virtue lie in their ability to preserve evidence of her treatment. Hopper’s caricatures and Jo’s diaries now under Gail Levin’s guardianship suggest that Hopper was a misogynist who expected his wife to be domestic even though she really wasn’t a domestic kind of person. They effectively tell her side of the story and why she failed as an artist. Jo also revealed in her diary that assisting Hopper, either as his model, as a source of skilled inspiration, or as his secretary, left her with little energy for her own art.
It’s useless to speculate whether or not Josephine Nivison would have enjoyed lasting success if she had not married Hopper. I’m not convinced either way. Nevertheless, I wonder, and that may have been what she wanted.