During the long months of Covid lockdowns, the artist most often used to illustrate articles about people isolated in their homes or devoid of social contact was the American realist painter Edward Hopper.
His images of people gazing out of a window or sitting alone in a diner have frequently been interpreted as depictions of loneliness. But Hopper pushed back, saying solitude was not the same as loneliness. “She’s just looking out of the window,” he said of one painting.
Hopper himself relished solitude, preferring a hermit-like existence – albeit with his wife, Josephine Nivison Hopper, also an artist – to social gatherings. The volatile relationship between the laconic Ed and the spirited but resentful Jo is at the heart of a new documentary film made by the British director Phil Grabsky, opening in cinemas this month.
Hopper: An American Love Story is the latest in the acclaimed Exhibition on Screen series, which examines the work and lives of great artists. The film’s release coincides with the opening of a major exhibition of Hopper paintings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
The film’s title was deliberately ambiguous, said Grabsky. “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.”
Hopper’s art was “extremely well known, but his name is less so”, said Grabsky. “When I said I was making a film about Edward Hopper, there were people who told me, ‘I don’t know who that is.’ If I showed them Nighthawks, they knew it immediately.”
The artist’s life was a “biography in paint”, said Grabsky. “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 draws on Josephine’s extensive diaries, which were transcribed many years after her death in 1968 (her husband died 10 months earlier). In the volumes, she records the couple’s arguments, ranging from routine bickering to acts of violence – biting, slapping, bruising – committed by both parties.
She was also his muse, the only model for his female figures – reading, lost in thought, lingering over a cup of coffee, sitting on a train, working in an office. The women have different faces and bodies but all derived from Josephine.
She referred to her husband’s paintings as their “children”, and worked tirelessly to find locations, negotiate with galleries, and compile detailed logs of his output. “She did everything for him. And she allowed her own career to wither on the vine, really,” said Grabsky. Or, as she wrote: “If there can be room for only one of us, it must undoubtedly be he.”
Grabsky said: “It was a very complex relationship. I don’t think he was a very nice person but there was no question that she loved him. He’s controlling her by his silence at times. He’s physically controlling her because he’s stronger than she is. The film doesn’t hold back from giving those examples.”
In turn, Josephine refused to cook meals and withheld sex from her husband. “It’s hard to be completely sure of anybody’s relationships,” said Grabsky. “People will watch the film and come to their own conclusions.”
The pace of the film is deliberately slow. “It’s to encourage people to think about the art. One of my frustrations with art on TV is that it’s usually someone standing in front of a painting, telling us what we see.”
The Exhibition on Screen series has been popular with cinemagoers since the first film, about Leonardo da Vinci, screened in 2011. In total, 31 films have been made. “When I first broached the idea of showing art in cinemas, people thought I was mad,” said Grabsky.
The Hopper film has a special place in the director’s heart. “My father was born in New York in 1929, so for the first 40 years of his life he was living in the city that Hopper was also living in. And my father died during the production of this film. So the film has extra resonance for me.”
Hopper: An American Love Story is in cinemas from 18 October