Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Jo Hopper and Charles Burchfield


Above is an oil portrait of Jo Hopper painted by her husband Edward. I love its direct and concentrated energy and absolutely masterful design. As introverted and silent as Edward Hopper was, Jo was famously gregarious and scrappy. She had been an actress as well as an art student in her earlier days before marrying Edward. The two of them had a complicated decades long relationship, by turns closely intimate and other times explosive to the point of violence. It was Jo's initiative that really jump started Edward's rise to art stardom. Unfortunately her career as a painter lagged badly after her marriage, a source of long simmering resentment for her.

I was reading through the journals of the painter Charles Burchfield (Am. 1893-1967) and ran across his entry for March 6 - 12, 1939 with its amusing observation from Burchfield about the Hoppers.  Jo's painting had just been rejected from an exhibtion for which Edward had served on the selection panel-

I stopped in to see Hopper.  Mrs. Hopper was there and as usual monopolized the conversation. Her grievance that day was that Hopper, according to her, had not only not voted for her picture at Richmond, but had failed to try to influence the other jurors in its favor. God help the artist who is married to another artist."



Charles Burchfield


As a committed landscape painter myself, I've had the remarkable good fortune to have been given unprecedented access to the studio the Hoppers built on Cape Cod in S. Truro, MA in 1934. Edward designed the place himself down to the last nail. The Hopper's used an inheritance Jo received from one of her aunts to fund the construction. They would live there for the following three decades for half of each year. Many of the most famous Edward Hopper paintings were made within its walls.

Set on a high sand dune with unobstructed views of Cape Cod Bay and the rolling sandy hills of Truro, it proved a key ingredient in deepening Edward's imagination and painter's vision in the second half of his life. 




Edward was generous with the studio's space for painting, devoting fully half the building's square footage to the giant painting room. An impressive high ceiling and an imposing ten foot tall window assures it is always filled with beautiful north light. It's a painter's dream.







By contrast, Edward insisted it would bother him if Jo were to paint in "his" painting room. He insisted Jo do her painting in their small kitchen, a very unfortunate working space from my (and Jo's) point of view. Here's my wife Alice drinking her morning coffee in the kitchen at the little table where Jo and Edward would eat their breakfast.





In her early days,  Jo knew some of the major players in the art world. One of the most prominent teachers and painters of the day, Robert Henri, painted the above portrait of Jo titled The Art Student. 

Edward Hopper died in 1967 and Jo followed him within 9 months. They left essentially everything to the Whitney Museum of American Art, including the very large number of unsold paintings Edward had in his studio (despite his enormous popularity, Hopper didn't sell anywhere near everything he painted), and a large number of Jo's paintings. The Whitney's Curator at the time, Lloyd Goodrich, promptly threw out Jo's work, considering it unworthy of the museum's Collection. By contrast, he held onto literally thousands of paintings and works on paper by Edward.

I've always been curious about Jo's paintings- were they so inferior that Goodrich was right to trash them? We'll never have a full answer. But even if they weren't visually that powerful, many of them would have at very least provided a treasure of detail about the surroundings, daily routines, and painting travels of the Hopper's. Through them we would have understood the Hopper's world better. 




So Jo is known to us now primarily as the model for all the female figures in Hopper's work done since they married (she insisted he not work from another female model from then on). Above is one of the Edward's nude studies of her, and below a sensitive portrait drawing.





One of Edward's watercolors done on a trip out West, Jo Painting.





Jo and Edward together in their earlier days. 



Fortunately some little seen work by Jo Hopper is going to be the focus of a new exhibition at the Edward Hopper House Art Center
in Nyack, NY April 19 - June 15. For anyone curious about this woman painter who was married to Edward Hopper for decades, this is a rare opportunity. How much was she the victim of the male dominated art world of her day? And just how good a painter was she? I'm intrigued to see for myself.

2 comments:

  1. Without Jo, Edward might have gotten along in his journey to "look for me," but the world would never have been there as voyeur.

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  2. Yow! This story made me so angry for Jo Hopper and all women artists. Things have changed a little for us, but it seems like we're still sidelined and dismissed in the "art" world. Poor Jo. I'd love to see some of her paintings.

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