At Large  October 15, 2020  Stephanie Kane

Uncovering Edward Hopper's Archetypal Woman

Nighthawks, 1942

With social isolation now a way of life, it’s unsurprising that mid-century American realist painter Edward Hopper is having a moment. Best known for his disengaged diners sharing a counter and little else in 1942’s Nighthawks, and his inscrutable cloche-clad girl staring into a coffee cup in 1927’s Automat, Hopper’s paintings have been described as static and silent, depicting a world with no future. 

Set in apartments and hotel rooms and neon-lit diners, viewed through a door or window, depicted in profile or looking down, Hopper’s subject is often a hard-featured woman with pointy breasts. She’s the Gibson girl with upswept hair and unsmiling lips (Couple near Poplars, 1906-09), and Automat’s forlorn flapper. She’s the girl in the pink bandeau and shorts staring down while her boyfriend leans imploringly in (Summer Evening, 1946). The one bent over the train schedule in her lap, suitcase at her feet (Hotel Room, 1931). The wife in evening dress at the piano with hand poised to come crashing down while her husband reads his paper (Room in New York, 1932), and glaring at him as he tries to get the attention of a collie gamboling in the grass (Cape Cod Evening, 1939). In her most erotic incarnation, she’s the flame-haired stripper strutting across an elevated stage before a bored percussionist and row of inert male heads (Girlie Show, 1941).

Automat, 1927

Who was she?

The obvious candidate for Hopper’s woman is his wife, Josephine Verstille Nivison. Jo was a talented watercolorist who married Hopper when they were both in their forties. Petite, feisty and tempestuous, she sacrificed her career to his. In exchange, she became Hopper’s manager and sole model. She controlled his contacts and, according to her extensive diaries, collaborated with him on his paintings by shopping for props, naming and helping him create his personas, and even acting out their parts.

Robert Henri, The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison), 1906

The Hoppers’ forty-year marriage was volatile and occasionally violent. He disparaged her art but installed a mirror next to his easel to watch her paint. In caricaturing her as a topknot with earrings and cuffs, he erased her. Biographer Gail Levin quotes the Hoppers’ friend, art historian Barbara Novak, that Jo “saw the world through a barbed-wire screen of resentment.” When Jo died in 1968, after bequeathing their paintings to The Whitney Museum of American Art, she endured the ultimate posthumous insult: The Whitney threw her work out. 

Jo wasn’t Hopper’s only woman. In 1922, Jeanne Cheruy, an older Frenchwoman, inscribed a copy of Paul Verlaine’s erotic poetry to him. Hopper was long presumed to have had just one other romantic liaison, but in 2006, a fourth woman came to light. Based on what’s known of these relationships, each shaped the woman who appears over and over in his work.

Hopper was born in 1882 in Nyack, New York, and raised in a strict Baptist home. His mother, Elizabeth Griffiths Smith, controlled his upbringing and managed the household’s affairs. Tall, shy, and homely, young Hopper led a sheltered life. Talented in drawing, he studied illustration and then enrolled in the New York School of Art. In 1906, he took his first trip to Paris. At a boarding house chosen by his mother above a Baptist school, he met Enid Marion Saies.

Enid was a bright-eyed English girl studying at the Sorbonne. Smitten, Hopper took her to Versailles and the Opéra. Intending to marry her, he followed Enid home to London. After dining at an Italian restaurant in Soho, they sat in Enid’s garden while she embroidered a waistcoat for her French suitor and he helped by biting off threads. Enid later told her daughter that Hopper suddenly recoiled and declared he wouldn’t do that for another man. He wired his parents for money, stayed in Europe a few more weeks, and came home.

Room in New York, 1932

After Jo died, a cache of letters was found in Hopper’s Nyack attic. They were dated 1904 to 1914 and postmarked Paris, New York, and Sauk Center, Minnesota. Collected and edited by art historian Elizabeth Thompson Colleary in My Dear Mr. Hopper, the fifty-eight letters and one unsigned, undated note were from Minnesota socialite Alta Hilsdale. Alta’s parents had sent her to New York and Paris to groom her for marriage. Hopper kept his relationship with Alta a secret.

Most of Alta’s letters are callous and flirtatious excuses not to see him: 

I should enjoy it very much to go to Saint Cloud, but I really don’t see when I could do it…. I think I shall have to put off the Café d’harcourt for this week…. I am sorry I shall not be in Saturday evening—will you come Tuesday instead? … Certainly I might have spared you one evening this week—I might also have spared several other people one evening—and where would my evenings have been?

Summer Evening, 1947

There are two striking departures. In 1908, perhaps fearing she’d pushed Hopper too far, Alta wrote that she’d dreamed he tried to throw her off a cliff and wondered if he hated her for never answering one of his notes. Her only unsigned note is even less characteristic and more revealing. Hastily dashed off, unpunctuated and with cross-outs, in its entirety it reads:

You are the type of a man who does not believe that a girl can be platonic indefinitely It seems to me that you are in a class who regards every girl as one with designs to besiege your affections

In 1914, Alta informed Hopper she was marrying another man. Begging his forgiveness for having caused him such unhappiness—and inviting him to come visit—she ended their correspondence shortly after.

Hopper’s relationships with Alta and Enid had arcs. So did the woman he painted. The Gibson girl donned a cloche and became a flapper. The sullen girl in pink bandeau and shorts became the wife at the piano and the woman glaring at the dejected man with the dog. But did the flame-haired stripper flame on? And did the girl with the train schedule actually leave? Two of Hopper’s last paintings may provide answers.

Western Motel, 1957

In 1957’s Western Motel, Hopper’s woman at long last faces the viewer. Hair and shoulders pulled back, in a striking red dress she sits upright at the foot of a neatly-made bed and resolutely stares out from the frame. Packed and tagged, her bags wait by the door. The picture window behind her opens onto blue sky, mountains, and a Buick sedan. Boxer shorts are draped over a chair. The girl in the hotel room with the train schedule is finally on the go. And she’s going without him. 

Hopper’s final work was Two Comedians. Painted in 1965, while he was in declining health, it depicts two pantomime commedia dell’arte performers taking a final bow. Holding hands on a blackened stage, they gesture tenderly towards each other. Jo said it represented them. Hopper died in 1967. Ten months later, she followed.

About the Author

Stephanie Kane

Automat coverStephanie Kane is a lawyer and award-winning crime novelist. In AUTOMAT, Denver Art Museum Conservator of Paintings Lily Sparks uses her gift of discernment to solve the murder of actresses who bring Hopper's women to life. Lily's perfect eye tells her that just as the celebrated artist kept painting the same iconic woman, the killer must keep killing her.

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