Josephine Nivison was an accomplished artist by the time she started dating Edward Hopper in 1923. Her paintings had hung next to those of Picasso, Modigliani and Man Ray. Prestigious New York City galleries regularly featured her work. And she had just been invited to show six watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum — along with such names as Georgia O’Keeffe and John Singer Sargent.
Hopper, meanwhile, hadn’t sold a painting in over a decade. He was toiling in commercial magazines and feeling pretty depressed. Nivison wanted to help him out, so she convinced the Brooklyn curators to include his work in her show, too.
That exhibit would change art history, launching Hopper’s career and ushering in a new kind of American realism. But, as Katie McCabe, author of “More Than a Muse: Creative Partnerships That Sold Talented Women Short,” out Tuesday, explains, it would happen at Josephine’s expense.
Josephine and Edward got hitched that same year, 1924, embarking on a tumultuous marriage. But while Edward’s star rose, hers fell — hard. When she bequeathed a trove of her and her husband’s work to the Whitney upon her death in 1968, the museum kept most of his creations and dumped her stuff — “loaning” pieces out to hospitals and office buildings and even relegating some to the trash.
It didn’t help that she handled Hopper’s press, kept track of his sales and posed for his paintings.
“She and Edward were such a unit,” McCabe tells The Post. “She was almost his manager, so that colored [the public’s] view of her. They also painted side by side, so it was hard for people not to compare her work to his and see her as an individual artist.”
Born in Manhattan in 1883, Josephine had a peripatetic, chaotic childhood. Her father was a piano teacher with “no paternal instincts” and no money. Her mother was a housewife and “independent spirit,” who allowed Jo and her younger brother to do anything they wanted. So Jo went to college — a feat for a young woman at that time — getting a teaching degree from the free Hunter College and acting in various small avant-garde troupes before enrolling in the New York School of Art.
There, Jo was Robert Henri’s star pupil. The respected realist painter even did her portrait, a diminutive but determined-looking firecracker with wild hair, wearing a slightly-askew artist’s smock over a scarlet dress while wielding a trio of paint brushes.
After stints in Paris and teaching in the New York City public schools, by the early 1920s she was a full-time artist. That’s when she ran into Hopper — a former classmate at the New York School of Art — one summer at an artists colony in Gloucester, Mass. He was 41, still drawing magazine covers, when Jo, 40, suggested he try his hand at watercolors.
He had previously “dismissed watercolor as an artistic medium, relegating it to commercial illustrations,” said art historian Gail Levin, author of “Edward Hopper: An Intimate Life,” which was the first biography to heavily feature Jo’s diaries. “But with Jo’s encouragement he took it up as fine art.”
It turned out to be his big break, landing him a spot in that Brooklyn Museum show with Jo.
Josephine’s brightly colored, impressionistic landscapes — she tended to use a lot of hot, searing colors then: red, lime green, lemon yellow — charmed the critics. But Edward’s New England paintings caused a sensation. The papers swooned. The Brooklyn Museum bought “Mansard Roof” for its own collection. Soon, Edward had gallery representation and Josephine found herself in the role of her now-husband’s manager, keeping track of his sales, saving his press clippings and talking for the reticent Hopper in interviews with journalists (who portrayed her as a “nagging” nuisance). She never stopped painting, but she never got paired with the likes of Picasso ever again, either.
Meanwhile, the Hoppers lived a spartan life — in an apartment overlooking Washington Square with no fridge and no toilet (they shared a bathroom with their neighbors downstairs). Edward would haul buckets of coal up the four flights for their stove. Not that Josephine’s culinary efforts extended beyond opening a tin of beans. According to Levin, when asked about it, she would say, “We think when there’s too much good cooking going on, there’s not enough good painting.”
They never had kids — Jo, a teacher, loved them; Edward, per Levin, could barely tolerate them — and instead referred to Edward’s paintings as their children. Meanwhile, Josephine’s were “poor little stillborn infants” and “little bastards.”
There are several things I’ve been clean pushed out of by his strutting superiority.
It’s amazing she had any time to work on her little bastards at all, since she was constantly posing for her husband’s portraits. Once she burned herself while posing, naked, with her leg atop the stove for Hopper’s burlesque painting “Girlie Show,” and when she was 70 Edward had her wake up at dawn and stand in the cold apartment without any clothes so he could paint his masterpiece “A Woman in the Sun.” (Some of her detractors said that Josephine insisted on posing for Hopper because she was jealous of other women, but Levin said it was probably because “Hopper was too frugal to pay for a model when he had a wife who was available and a trained actor.”)
Though she is the only woman featured in his paintings, her work forever got short shrift — but she didn’t take it lying down.
“There are several things I’ve been clean pushed out of by his strutting superiority,” she lamented in her diaries. “Painting too — I’ve been slowly crowded out of that too — almost. But I’m ready to fight.”
And fight they did: hitting, scratching, biting, sometimes “to the bone,” Josephine wrote to a friend. Edward once made her a coat of arms out of a rolling pin and a ladle.
It was “a disturbing badge of honor for domestic abuse,” said McCabe.
Edward also disparaged Josephine’s art, condescendingly calling it a “pleasant little talent” and telling her nobody liked her work. When he sat as a juror for group exhibitions, he would reject his own wife’s submissions, fearing accusations of nepotism (or, perhaps, competition).
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