A Woman in the Sun: Josephine Nivison Hopper

A Woman in the Sun: Josephine Nivison Hopper


Edward Hopper often painted scenes of isolation. He did so to such an extent it feels as if his name is synonymous with this condition. Yet, investigating the situation of each lonely subject elucidates unique facets of solitude. This is especially true of A Woman in the Sun. The subject is a powerful figure confined not only by society, but also by herself. Adding complexity, Hopper’s wife—Josephine Nivison Hopper––modeled for the painting. She was seventy at the time,1 however, Hopper manipulated her into an ambiguous figure whom he did not associate with her. Regardless of Hopper’s intentions, Nivison bears similarities to the Woman in the Sun.

Nivison was also an artist. In fact, she was better known at the start of their relationship. Throughout their marriage, she receded into Hopper’s shadow, all the while facilitating his success. Before dying, she bequeathed her and Hopper’s remaining works (exceeding three thousand) to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Whitney inducted Hopper’s works into their permanent collection. They kept just two of Nivison’s paintings for display.2 For decades, it was thought that the Whitney “trashed the rest…leaving only a list.” Though many remain lost, in the early 2000s, approximately two hundred of Nivison’s works emerged from the Whitney’s depths.3 This moment also uncovered Nivison herself to the public. Pop-culture feminism immediately resented Hopper’s preeminence. In an attempt to “right” this “wrong,” Nivison’s name is now discussed in the trend to “rediscover” neglected female artists. Her story demands the question: Why did Hopper become a great artist and not her? And what does it mean to acknowledge Nivison now?

Nivison, described by those closest to her as “energetic” and “questioning,”4 had a commanding presence. The same is true for the Woman in the Sun. Hopper spotlights his subject in saturated yellow, contrasting the background’s subdued blues and greens. The room that she stands in is sparse, the only other inhabitant is a modest bed. Two indistinct wall hangings constitute a semblance of decor. The Woman demands consideration.

Light itself constitutes the other primary subject. Hopper used light––a hallmark of his–– “to insulate persons and objects in space.” Usually, his light is ghostly, as in Nighthawks, or harsh, as in Morning Sun.5 The uncharacteristic warmth of A Woman in the Sun creates a setting that is not inherently grim––one could even call it cheery. 

Even so, the Woman is grim. Lost in her thoughts, an unlit cigarette droops from her hand. Her glazed eyes turn inward.6 She is looking at herself, wearied by what she sees. The few details of the painting offer an explanation for her exhaustion: societal expectations. She left the bed unmade, but her hair is neat. Her visible fingernail appears to be painted red, a color known to increase sexual attraction. A pair of stilettos lie on the floor. Even her stance appeals to the male gaze; though her face is in perfect profile, her body is angled so both breasts are visible. The room is a cage of convention.

Nivison was similarly limited by male hegemony. Artistic talent is often thought of as innate. Consequently, some ascribe Nivison’s professional shortcomings to an absence of this supposed genius. However, such thinking succumbs to the “myth of the Great Artist”7––as deemed by art historian Linda Nochlin in her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.” Nochlin dismantles this delusion, specifying that “The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form… which have to be learned or worked out, through study, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation.”8 Thus, countering the claim that truly brilliant individuals invariably receive acclaim as evidence against sexism in the arts, Nochlin contends, “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”9 Though educational inequality certainly contributes to the scarcity of distinguished women artists, Nochlin’s argument does not entirely apply to Nivison. Both she and Hopper attended the New York School of Art.10 Evidently, they shared comparable opportunities to develop a “self-consistent language of form.”

In many ways, she did just that. Nivison’s bold personality translated to her art, which critics found uniquely “free.”11 Her works were shown alongside artists ranging from Man Ray to Picasso. By the time she started dating Hopper at age forty, Nivison was a noteworthy artist. Conversely, Hopper had not sold a painting in ten years. Having been asked to partake in the Brooklyn Museum’s 1923 Group Exhibition of Watercolor Paintings, Pastels, Drawings, which included John Singer Sargent and Georgia O’Keeffe,12 Nivison urged the museum to display some of her floundering counterpart’s pieces as well. Thereafter, critics swiftly disregarded Nivison’s colorful visions and gushed over Hopper’s heavier impressions, calling his paintings “one of the high spots of the exhibition.”13 His instant success landed him an individual show at the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery––which represented him for the remainder of his life.14

Eclipsed by Hopper, Nivison receded to his supporting role. Though not the stereotypical image of the “feminine mystique”15 (she often served canned dinners and never had children16), Nivison devolved to embody this notion. She became somewhat of Hopper’s manager––corresponding with the press, negotiating with collectors, and managing the finances.17 Nivison continued to paint, but was no longer wholly devoted. As Nochlin suggested was common for women artists, she was reduced to “a modest, proficient, self-demeaning level of amateurism.”18 Her work deteriorated, along with any potential renown. Thus, having seemingly overcome educational disparity, Nivison became limited by a more direct male influence: marriage to Hopper.

Opposite Nivison’s devotion to Hopper, he belittled her art, labeling it a “pleasant little talent.”19 Moreover, he outright inhibited her. Hopper regularly partook in exhibition committees, whereupon he (seemingly all but once)20 declined Nivison’s entries. As Nochlin describes, restricting women “helps guard men from unwanted competition in their “serious” professional activities and assures them of “well-rounded” assistance on the home front, so they may have sex and family in addition to the fulfillment of their own specialized talent.”21 He placed a mirror by his easel which reflected her workspace in the adjacent room22––as if suspicious of her talent.

Despite Hopper, Nivison procured shows periodically––including numerous at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Studio Club.23 However, critics and collectors alike expressed a “negative response.”24 Feminist rationale assumes the art world favored Hopper purely on the basis of sex. The more scholarly investigation of Katie McCabe, author of “More Than a Muse: Creative Partnerships That Sold Talented Women Short,” determines: “She and Edward were such a unit… so it was hard for people not to compare her work to his and see her as an individual artist.”25 Regardless, the sexist reality delineated by such conclusions is eclipsed by their implication: were Nivison not conflated with Hopper, her paintings would have been liked. This conditional fails to recognize Nivison’s significant artistic shift under Hopper.

Reinforcing Hopper’s control over Nivison’s art, he did not let her drive,26 effectively limiting her to his preferred subjects. They would go to a location of Hopper’s choice, where he pushed the car seats forward to create a mobile studio in back. Crammed in the front,27 Nivison painted the world according to Hopper’s intrigues, gradually surrendering her trademark vibrancy. Art historians recognize Nivison’s skill suffered at the hands of Hopper. As stated by Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, a scholar specializing in both their work,28 her “pre-Hopper work is definitely the strongest—there’s a spiritedness to it that is entirely her own. Her voice as an artist didn’t come through when they were side by side.”29 Nivison was likewise aware of her artistic decline during their marriage. She recalls how Hopper’s paintings were “greeted like a newborn heir.” In contrast, she dubbed hers “poor little stillborn infants,” confessing to a gallerist “I don’t much like them… But how sad for them if I forsake them!”30 Nevertheless, until she married Hopper, Nivison procured the public’s commendation. Given her awareness and frustration as her career collapsed, why did Nivison largely abandon her craft?

Though Nochlin elucidates extrinsic factors which prevent women from succeeding in the arts, she fails to consider the artist’s inner persona. Returning to A Woman in the Sun, the Woman’s containment is beyond physical. She is also trapped within her mind. Unlike the viewer, she cannot feel the sunlight. Her extremities are tinged red from an imagined cold. Her taught neck and uncomfortably straight legs disclose a body rife with tension. By remaining in the room, trying to succeed in a male-constructed world, she denies herself of nature.

Here, A Woman in the Sun mirrors the words of social critic Camille Paglia––a contemporary of Nochlin’s who also sought to explain women’s lower cultural status. Paglia pronounced irreconcilable psychological differences between the sexes, asserting, “Feminists, seeking to drive power relations out of sex, have set themselves against nature.”31 Paglia links male supremacy in art to sexual physiology. In her words, men succeed because “cultural achievement is a projection” and they “are anatomically destined to be projectors.”32 Consequently, she believes women don’t accomplish artistically, not because men obstruct them, but because “This is one genre of self-expression women will never master…. [With women] There is no projection beyond the boundaries of the self.”33 Following Paglia’s philosophy, Nivison fell short because men and women possess divergent desires. Men thrust their work into the world, demanding it is seen. For them, to create is to project. Along these lines, Hopper excelled in part because of intrinsic male desire. By initially conforming to “man’s systems,”34 Nivison also achieved acclaim. However, Paglia’s words contend it may not have been in her biology to continue this path.

Paglia’s reasoning is certainly contentious and less demonstrable than Nochlin’s, yet Nivison herself alluded to analogous sentiments. In her fifties, she wrote to a friend, “concerning the thing one paints, there has to be a very close rapport… an identification of one’s self with the subject.”35 Nivison’s words are eerily similar to Paglia’s. Though all artists are personally connected to their subject––if not at the outset than through rendering them––Nivison was decidedly so. Where Hopper looked into worlds he was not a part of, Nivison created images of things she loved. She has countless paintings of cats––mostly of her beloved pet, Arthur, with whom Hopper felt a rivalry (Fig. 3).36 Other times, she manipulated watercolors into fluid bouquets against incredibly detailed backgrounds, which she often gave to people she cherished (Fig. 4).37 To the extent we can externally understand Nivison and Hopper, it’s not hard to see how their disparate artistic intentions contributed to disproportionate recognition.

Although her own work lacked appreciation, Nivison underpinned Hopper’s eminence. Far more than muse or manager, she palpably affected his work. For example, his palette adopted traces of her warm colors.38 Furthermore, Nivison often directly conceived of paintings, as in “Table for Ladies,” for which she selected and staged all materials.39 When the Whitney’s lunacy came to light, inciting a holistic investigation of the couple, so did Nivison’s impression on the infamous “solitary” Hopper. Articles blossomed, including: the Smithsonian’s “Reexamining Edward Hopper—and the Woman Behind His Career” and the New York Post’s “The woman who made Edward Hopper famous.” True, Hopper as we know him would not be the same without Nivison; she should receive a definitive place in Hopper’s narrative. Nonetheless, this does not grant her credit for Hopper’s genius, nor does it mean Hopper could never have triumphed without her.

Some articles go so far as to claim that Nivison is “better than her husband.”40Even academic accounts attempt to find value in Nivison’s work on the premise of “what could have been”–– such as art historian Gail Levin who suggests in her Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, “Perhaps had she not been married to Hopper, she might have tried to paint abstractly in order to be au courant.”41 Be that as it may, her career should not be resuscitated solely because of her somewhat tragic involvement with Hopper. We should certainly investigate her art in relation to Hopper, just as we should investigate his art in relation to Jo. Their secluded lifestyle presents a unique case study on artistic influence, raising questions regarding the factors which inform style. Investigation aside, we should evaluate Nivison’s art as its own entity. Society did not declare Nivison as “brilliant” during her time. Should she subsequently receive recognition for her art, the work must stand on its own aesthetic merit. Otherwise, we further entrench her name as a mere detail in Hopper’s life and demean her creative abilities.

Supplementary Images

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942): https://www.artic.edu/artworks/111628/nighthawks

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun (1952) https://www.columbusmuseum.org/blog/2020/05/12/pocketguide-to-cma-edward-hoppers-morning-sun/.

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Sleeping Cat (n.d.) Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 2004), Page 5, https://doi.org/10.2307/3566492

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Obituary (n.d.): https://whitney.org/collection/works/36765

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Ogunquit Cliff (1914-23) Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 2004), Page 4, https://doi.org/10.2307/3566492

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Market Fair, Woodstock (1921) Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 2004), Page 4, https://doi.org/10.2307/3566492

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Corn Hill (1930) Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 2004), Page 5, https://doi.org/10.2307/3566492

Josephine Nivison Hopper, Mrs. Scott’s House (1931) Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 2004), Page 6, https://doi.org/10.2307/3566492

  1. Raquel Laneri, “The woman who made Edward Hopper famous finally seizes the spotlight,” The New York Post, April 11, 2020. 
  2. “Collection/Artists: Josephine Nivison Hopper,” Whitney Museum of American Art, https://whitney.org/artists/1911.
  3. Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, “Josephine Nivison Hopper: Some Newly Discovered Works,” Woman’s Art Journal 25, no. 1 (2004): 2, https://doi.org/10.2307/3566492.
  4. Colleary, “Josephine Nivision Hopper,” 4.
  5. “Edward Hopper,” Encyclopedia Britannica, last modified October 15, 2022.
  6. “A Woman in the Sun, 1961 by Edward Hopper,” EdwardHopper.net, accessed December 13, 2022.
  7. Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” in Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, ed. Vivian Gornick (New York: Basic Books, 1971), 7.
  8. Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” 5.
  9. Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” 6.
  10. Gail Levin, “Josephine Verstille Nivison Hopper,” Woman’s Art Journal 1, no. 1 (1980): 27, https://doi.org/10.2307/1358015.
  11. Colleary, “Newly Discovered Works,” 6.
  12. Raquel Laneri, “The woman who made Edward Hopper.”
  13. Levin, “Josephine Verstille Nivison Hopper,” 29.
  14. Colleary, “Newly Discovered Works,” 5.
  15. Nochlin, “No Great Women Artists,” 28-29.
  16. James Mellow, “The World Of Edward is Hopper,” The New York Times, September 5, 1971.
  17. Raquel Laneri, “The Woman who Made Edward Hopper.”
  18. Nochlin, “No Great Women Artists,” 27-29.
  19. Raquel Laneri, “The woman who made Edward Hopper.”
  20. Colleary, “Newly Discovered Works,” 5.
  21. Nochlin, “No Great Women Artists,” 29.
  22. Gaby Wood, “Man and muse,” The Guardian, April 25, 2004.
  23. Levin, “Josephine,” 31.
  24. Levin, “Josephine,” 31.
  25. Raquel Laneri, “The woman who made Edward Hopper.”
  26. Gaby Wood, “Man and muse.”
  27. Sarah McColl, “Jo Hopper, Woman in the Sun,” The Paris Review, February 26, 2018.
  28. “Ebullient Art Historian,” Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, 2020.
  29. Gaby Wood, “Man and muse.”
  30. Sarah McColl, “Jo Hopper.”
  31. Camille Paglia, “Sex and Violence, or Art and Nature,” in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, (New York: Yale University Press, 1991), 2.
  32. Paglia, “Sex and Violence, or Art and Nature,” 17.
  33. Paglia, “Sex and Violence, or Art and Nature,” 21.
  34. Paglia, “Sex and Violence, or Art and Nature,” 9.
  35. Colleary, “Newly Discovered Works,” 9.
  36. Colleary, “Newly Discovered Works,” 5-6.
  37. Colleary, “Newly Discovered Works,” 11.
  38. Raquel Laneri, “The Woman who Made Edward Hopper.”
  39. Raquel Laneri, “The Woman who Made Edward Hopper.”
  40. Senta Trömel-Plötz, “Josephine Nivison-Hopper,” FemBio, accessed December 13, 2022.
  41. Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 416.
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