A woman with gleaming copper hair in a red dress sits in a well-lit diner on a city corner. Only two other patrons, both men wearing dark suits and hats, sit at the counter. The woman may or may not be touching the hand of the man sitting next to her; they don’t look at each other, but their body language indicates that maybe they came together. The uniformed man behind the counter is perhaps in discussion with them, though neither of them are making eye contact. The light from the diner seeps through the large glass windows out onto the dark, deserted city streets.
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, which imagines this scene, is one of the most recognizable American paintings of the 20th century. Those who may not know Hopper’s name may still know some of his paintings, which explore themes of isolation and loneliness.
But many know much less about the man himself, his career or his personal life. A new film, Hopper: An American Love Story, explores his famous and lesser-known works, his influences and blind spots as an artist, and, perhaps most importantly, his devoted but volatile relationship with his wife, fellow artist Josephine Nivison Hopper. The film highlights how Hopper owed much of his career to his wife—and how she put her artistic ambitions on hold in order to promote his.
“His life story is told through his paintings—and you can’t understand his works without understanding who he was, and who his wife was,” the film’s director, Phil Grabsky, tells the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood.
The title, An American Love Story, is meant to be ambiguous, he adds. “It refers to his relationship with Jo, who’s been overlooked unfairly. The woman-behind-the-man thing has come up with other artists, but it’s very true with Hopper. There is no Edward Hopper without Jo Nivison. And I think that’s being re-evaluated. It also refers to his love of America, of everyday life, of what’s around you. One of the interviewees [in the film] talks about how he encourages you to look at things you might just pass over.”
The film is being released in tandem with a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Edward Hopper’s New York,” in which visitors can view correspondence between the couple and their friends, tracing more details of their lives. The exhibition features letters, photographs, journals and other personal effects from the Sanborn Hopper Archive, recently acquired by the Whitney, alongside works from the museum’s collection and pieces on loan from other museums.
The exhibition focuses on the artist’s enduring relationship with the city where he and Nivison lived most of their adult lives. Born in 1882 in Nyack, New York, Hopper lived in New York City for six decades, from 1908 until his death in 1967.
“The canvases begin their conversations in the early 20th century and continue to speak volumes to contemporary visitors who see simultaneously how much and how little has changed,” writes Forbes’ Natasha Gural. “Early sketches, prints, and illustrations are in dialogue with Hopper’s late paintings, telling the story of what it is to be a New Yorker.”
“Edward Hopper’s New York” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through March 5, 2023.