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.

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