The invisible Mrs Hopper

Blue 1602 blog

Life Drawing (20 cms x 30 cms charcoal 2016)

Cultural history is littered with examples of men falling for women with similar artistic ambitions but who, as the wedding day approached, suggested their future wives may want to leave the work of being the family genius to them. Gustav Mahler, for example, insisted that his wife Alma cease composing when they married. It wasn’t until some years later, when Alma began an affair with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, and sought advice from Sigmund Freud, that Mahler realised that perhaps he’d been unreasonable and helped Alma orchestrate and promote her songs.

In Olivia Laing‘s compelling and revealing book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, we encounter the sad story of Josephine Niveson. Jo, as she was known, was  ‘tiny and tempestuous: a talkative, hot-tempered, sociable woman…doggedly making her way as an artist’ when she met Edward Hopper. After they married, Laing writes, ‘her own career, previously much fought for, much defended, dwindled away to almost nothing’. She became Hopper’s business manager and muse, posing for most of the usherettes, waitresses and pensive women sitting on beds in their underwear that populate Hopper’s paintings.

A model, yes; a rival, no. The other reason Jo’s career foundered is that her husband was profoundly opposed to its existence. Edward didn’t just fail to support Jo’s painting, but rather worked actively to discourage it, mocking and denigrating the few things she did manage to produce, and acting with great creativity and malice to limit the conditions in which she might paint. [The Lonely City, p.37]

Little of Jo Hopper’s work survives. Her husband left her everything, asking that she bequeath his art to the Whitney Museum.

After his death, she donated both his and the majority of her own artistic estates to the museum, even though she’d felt from the moment of her marriage that she’d been the victim of a boycott by the curators there…After her death, the Whitney discarded all her paintings, perhaps because of their calibre and perhaps because of the systematic undervaluing of women’s art against which she’d railed so bitterly in her own life. [The Lonely City, p.39]

I illustrate this post – somewhat ironically – with two drawings from Ed Cooper‘s inspirational life drawing classes earlier this year. Being a model is one area where women have had little trouble carving a niche through the ages. The subject of these drawings, Blue King, is a highly creative woman in her own right and an active participant in the process, making life class a true partnership between the tutor, the model and the person drawing.

Blue 1602 1 blog

Life Drawing [Re-drawn] (A5 pencil 2016)

I have to wonder what we’re missing when women’s creative contributions are repeatedly consigned to drawers, cupboards, attics or – in the case of Jo Hopper’s work – the refuse bins outside the back of the Whitney Museum.

39 thoughts on “The invisible Mrs Hopper

  1. Once more many compliments for your blog and as ever my thanks for your kind Likes on my posts shown on my blog and for your following my art activities. All the best, Edoardo

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Most interesting today, we all have to just keep making art regardless of what anyone says. Your life drawings are so appealing. Thank you for posting today Michael and your support of women in the arts!!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This was an interesting read. I too can think of examples of spouses whose creativity was squashed by the dominance of the male working in the same or similar field. Oppression of women took and still does take many forms and limiting women’s ambitions is one such form.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very inspiring post. I feel I have been in the opposite situation with my wife, but the difference is: she never ASKED me to drop my work for her. Thanks a lot for sharing. Food for thoughs.

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      • I believe, somehow, there’s always a “dominant”. I was thinking of Uli and Marina Abramovic as well, but even among my friends who share the same career, I can see one is “walking in the shadow” of the other. It’s not always a bad thing, I feel it’s more like a natural process to avoid tensions?

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      • Very likely. I suppose the chances of a couple being equally successful, equally acknowledged, are low. So long as that is accepted by both I imagine that would work. It’s when one hinders the other that we find ourselves in Hopper territory.

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  5. Compelling story. I must thank you for bringing up the subject of support for women in the arts. As a woman I feel we need to continue producing and contributing our art no matter what. Your life drawings are remarkable.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Beautiful drawings! I especially like the first one – your shading and line flow are captivating. Very sad story. And not unique. It probably has something to do with the cultural (and biological) notion that men are the dominant sex. Good though that humans have the ability to reflect on their own lives and those of others and write those thoughts. It gives us the capacity, as a species, to evolve psychologically (mostly in a positive way hopefully). Interesting video with Blue King. She has quite a presence as a model. She is clearly part of the creative process of each drawing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent post, Jo’s story is heartbreaking all the way to the Whitney disposing of her artwork. The thought of being suppressed is just horrifying and so depressing. I do love your drawings and the energy and strength of your lines.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A most fascinating and illuminating post, Michael. I hope and trust I am a “mature Mahler” in representing and even championing Karen’s art. Unlike Hopper, I’d give my left ___ to have the Whitney take one of her pieces. In fact, perhaps I’ll call the curator today to see if he takes pounds of flesh.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am no artist but I find your drawings visually appealing, especially the respect for the details of the human body you illustrate. I do consider myself a writer, though, and this text is compelling. It flows at a perfect pace for digesting the intensity of emotion while moving the story forward. Excellent post, Michael.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Inspirational post! I always use the quote… behind every great man, I stopped drawing and painting after having the children and perhaps feeling in the shadow of my husband. I am ok with that though, it was a process to get to writing perhaps. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I’ve occasionally worked photographically with models in nature. Some have proved more participatory and more willing to try things, even precarious things, than others. Sometimes models have come up with poses I wouldn’t have thought of.

    Liked by 1 person

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