New York Movie
The Sheridan Theatre
Sunlight in a Cafeteria
Room in New York
Morning Sun
Office in a Small City
Room in Brooklyn
Sunlight on Brownstones
Queensborough Bridge, 1913
Edward and Jo Hopper, c. 1947
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Hopper exhibition – Whitney Museum of American Art

Edward Hopper painted his loneliness and discovered he was not alone. Showcasing his realistic paintings of characters alone in public places is Edward Hopper’s New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

But America and the world would have never seen his work if not for his wife, Josephine Nivison.   

Josephine Nivison

For a time after Hopper completed his art studies in 1905, he created competent oil paintings but he was unable to support himself as an artist. Instead, he worked as an illustrator for magazines. In 1920, at the age of thirty-seven, he became romantically linked with Josephine Nivison. At that time Nivison was a sociable and successful watercolour artist. Her work hung alongside works by Picasso and Man Ray in prestigious New York galleries. She encouraged him to paint in watercolour and arranged for the Brooklyn Museum to show Hopper’s work in a prestigious exhibition. The Brooklyn Museum bought one of his watercolours, and the next year he was able to sell out a solo exhibition and quit his job as an illustrator.

Nivison and Hopper’s professional partnership was extraordinary. Not only did her sociability bring his art to a wider audience, but she also managed his career, documented his creative process and was his sole female muse.

But their marriage was not harmonious. The tension in their relationship started showing up in his paintings, a tension with which many could relate.  

New York Movie

Hopper was resigned to an emotionally dysfunctional life, and in many of his paintings, one can viscerally feel worn-out weariness, boredom and regret. For instance, in New York Movie we see an almost empty theatre and the backs of two patrons sitting separately. The palatable sadness and self-centredness of seeing a movie alone in a public theatre are reinforced by the attractive but dejected face of a female usher, modelled by Nivison, seemingly resigned to a life of serving these sad patrons.


Many of Hopper’s paintings provide voyeuristic views of private moments in public spaces like theatres, restaurants, offices and often through windows. In Room in New York, we see through a window a couple alone together. So too in Automat, there is a sad but lovely woman drinking a cup of coffee alone, too hurried to even take off her second glove. She is framed by a giant but dark picture window reflecting only ceiling lights that stretch to the vanishing point and which may be a symbol of her seemingly unending despondent mood. 

Room in New York

If Hopper’s paintings only captured loneliness and despair, even Nivison’s help would not have led to widespread appreciation. Hopper’s success can also be attributed to his eye for seeing beauty in the ordinary. To most people, there is no inherent beauty in the ordinary scene depicted by Room in New York, yet from Hopper’s perspective, a window frames two sides of an enticingly lit room that turns walls into the colours of a green meadow in summer, a door becomes a majestic tree, and two beautiful wealthy people ignore both their surroundings and each other. The characters seem resigned to their gilded cage existence, begging the viewer to ask: Are the characters blind to the beauty around them?        

Hopper trapped in a gilded cage

Appreciating an Edward Hopper painting begins by looking for the beauty, trying to see how light and shadows, colour and objects, windows and buildings provide an agreeable ambience. And then asking if you feel as ambivalent about the environment as the characters. They may be trapped in a gilded cage, but it is a trap of their own making. One cannot passively view a Hopper painting; the tension between beauty and sadness demands a response.

Edward Hopper & Josephine Nivison

The union between Edward Hopper and Josephine Nivison was both an artistic and commercial success and an emotional tragedy. But the tension in their relationship was the inspiration that made an ordinary painter extraordinary.        

                                                Text Martin Wray / Photos Whitney Museum of American Art, New York