Josephine Nivison (Hopper): Life Before Edward

In 1920, four years before her marriage to Edward Hopper, the artist Josephine Verstille Nivison (1883-1968) spent the summer in Vermont, as a crafts counselor at the Aloha Hive camp on Lake Fairlee. It may well have been Jo’s experience at Aloha Hive, living for two months in the peace and beauty of the Green Mountains, that subsequently led her to urge Edward to “try Vermont,” as she put it, in search of new landscapes to inspire his paintings. At least that’s what I opine in my book, Edward Hopper in Vermont (University Press of New England, 2012).

The camps of the Aloha Foundation are still vibrantly active, with generations of Aloha alumni throughout the country.  Recently I shared this story — of Josephine Nivison, the future Mrs. Hopper, as an Aloha Hive counselor — through the Aloha Foundation’s newsletter, Reveille!  You can find the complete issue online, and here’s the excerpt with my article:
Jo Hopper at Aloha Hive, 2013 Summer Reveille, Aloha Foundation

While I was writing my book I visited the archives of the Aloha Foundation to search for any remaining traces of Jo’s stint there as a counselor. Two items turned up:  Jo’s original registration card, and a panoramic photo showing all of the counselors and campers in 1920.
November 2010 105With a magnifying glass and the zoom lens of my camera, I was able to pick out Jo.  Here she is, in the center of the back row, clad in the camp costume of middy blouse and tie (over bloomers, blessedly out of sight here!).
November 2010 057AWhen this photo was taken Jo was 37 years old, a frustrated artist who’d been earning a living as a teacher in the hard-knock elementary schools of New York City.  Years earlier, Jo had been a student of the famous New York artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929). In 1906 Henri painted a lovely portrait of the aspiring young artist, 23 years old, elegantly attired and with a direct and somewhat wistful gaze.

The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison)

This was perhaps Jo’s first time to serve as an artist’s model, though certainly not her last.  During her 43-year-long marriage to Edward Hopper, she served as the only model for the female figures in his paintings. This was a role that she could not have foreseen in 1906, as she posed for Henri, or even in 1920, while teaching crafts to young “Hivers” in Vermont.


Robert Henri (1865-1929), The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison), 1906, oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo credit John Nienhuis.


As Edward Hopper’s wife, Jo Nivison did much to insure his success, while at the same time her own work as an artist received little recognition. Nevertheless, Jo is on virtually every page of my book about her husband, in text or subtext, as his constant companion and muse and, most significantly, as keeper of the Ledger Books that remain the primary record of the creation and sales of Edward’s paintings.

Jo Hopper’s presence “behind the scenes” was apparent in last summer’s exhibition of Edward Hopper’s Vermont works at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.  In this case, the scenes are all of Vermont, a place that she knew before Edward did, thanks to her summer on Lake Fairlee.  We know as much as we do about the Vermont paintings and drawings — when and where they were made, when they were sold and for what price, and who purchased them — thanks to Jo’s detailed notes and the loquacious letters she wrote to Edward’s colleagues and those who bought the works. Jo also maintained a lively correspondence with the Vermont farm family where the Hoppers boarded in the late 1930s.

Many readers of my book, as well as visitors to the exhibition, have expressed curiosity about Jo as an artist.  Let’s hope that some day we’ll see a book about Jo — and even an exhibition of her work.  In the meantime, to read more about her, and to see reproductions of her work, see these articles:

Gail Levin, “Josephine Verstille Nivison Hopper,” Woman’s Art Journal, Spring/ Summer 1980, pp. 28-32.

Gail Levin, “Writing about Forgotten Women Artists: The Rediscovery of Jo Nivison Hopper,” in Kristen Fredrickson and Sarah E. Webb, Singular Women: Writing the Lives of Women Artists (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, “Josephine Nivison Hopper: Some Newly Discovered Works,” Woman’s Art Journal, Spring / Summer 2004 (Vol. 25, No. 1).

Marian Wardle, ed. American Women Modernists:  The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Museum of Art; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2005.

To peruse all my posts about Edward and Josephine Hoppers in Vermont — about my book, the Middlebury exhibition, and what I call “The Aloha Connection” — start from my home page.