PROVINCETOWN — “Isn’t it nice to have a wife who paints?” Josephine Nivison Hopper once asked her husband.
The question was rhetorical, but Edward Hopper answered anyway.
“It stinks,” he said.
“Edward and Josephine Hopper From the Permanent Collection,” at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, opens a window into the artists’ often rocky marriage. The exhibition, which shows off a juicy new acquisition, is up through Oct. 15.
The couple led a fairly insular life. They wed in 1924, already in their 40s, and had no children. At the time of their marriage, Jo Hopper had had moderate success as an artist, exhibiting in shows with Picasso and Man Ray, and selling drawings to newspapers. Edward, meanwhile, had sold only one painting in 10 years. Jo connected him to the right people, and, as his career surged, hers waned.
In 1930, they started summering on Cape Cod, and in time bought a house in Truro overlooking Fisher Beach. They enlisted a local contractor to build Edward a studio. Jo showed the builder a catalog with reproductions of her husband’s paintings “so he could see the characteristic style of the man whose studio he is building,” she wrote in her diary. “His houses have qualities so like E.H.’s pictures — a chastity and a dignity.”
The Hoppers spent summers in that house until they died, Edward in 1967 and Jo in 1968. They bequeathed their artistic estate to the Whitney Museum of American Art. But they left the Truro house and its contents to a friend, Mary Schiffenhaus. Inside were drawings, watercolors, documents, and Jo’s diaries.
Schiffenhaus’s two sons, J. Anton and Laurence C. Schiffenhaus, with the support of two anonymous donors, have now given that collection to the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. The exhibit features nearly 100 of Edward’s drawings, including many graceful studies for paintings and several droll cartoons, nearly 70 drawings and watercolors by Jo, and some of the diaries, written in a cramped, curlicued hand.
There are a handful of drab oil paintings by Jo. A picture of the Truro house looks like a clumsy attempt at an Edward Hopper. Judging by the works in this show, it’s no wonder her career sputtered. The art historian Elizabeth Thompson Colleary has said Jo’s paintings made before she met Edward were her strongest.
The best of her works here are sketches depicting her lanky husband before an easel, and a portrait of him peering out from beneath his fedora. He looks open, but innately forlorn.
Chaste and dignified, Hopper was the bard of American loneliness. Who would marry him and live with him in his solitude? A tenacious woman, who had her own loneliness to contend with.
She often felt solitary in her marriage, and in her struggle to paint, and get attention for her work.
“What has become of my world — it’s evaporated — I just trudge around in Eddie’s,” she wrote in 1937, lamenting the plight of women artists. “He’d keep it strictly private if he could. . . . Now he knows when I’m not clawing at the bars of his *Privacy.* I’m digging in my graveyard — dragging my effigies ‘from their bloody shrouds.’ ”
His drawings, in contrast, are a joy. In a sketch for “The Lee Shore,” his sailboats soar; craft and sail are windblown scoops dashing across the water. (Jo, too, sketched sailboats, with clunky triangular sails — as if she wasn’t truly looking.)
Edward’s astringent preparatory studies for paintings such as “Cape Cod Morning” and “Sea Watchers” adroitly experiment and block out what’s to come in rough, improvisatory gestures. “Sea Watchers” depicts a man and a woman in swimsuits side by side on a porch looking out to sea, perhaps like the Hoppers, alone together.
Jo modeled for every woman Edward painted after they married — the redhead at the diner in “Nighthawks,” the brooding usherette in “New York Movie” — but these paintings are not portraits. He only painted one portrait of Jo, which she abhorred.
The diaries and other papers are displayed in glass cases. Transcriptions are available to read, full of details art historians salivate over about paintings and painters, and the kind the rest of us eat up, about marital woes.
With grave and constant anxiety, Edward taught Jo how to drive. At one point, balking at the prospect of her parking the car, he dragged her out by her legs, leaving her sprawled on the pavement.
The art historian Gail Levin, in “Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography,” writes that both artists could be violent. On their 25th anniversary, Jo said to Edward that they deserved a distinguished combat medal, and he suggested a coat of arms with a rolling pin and a ladle.
She hated to cook; he felt neglected. She described with dry humor the cake she made for his birthday in 1938 as “a terror.”
“Made of whole wheat flour & brown sugar — not prescribed by the recipe — & it might be made of mangled peanut shell and molasses. E. said there was a faint flavor of haddock.”
One of his cartoons presents a skeletal Edward on his knees, begging for food from the diminutive Jo, who perches on a cloud bank, reading. Another, which he titled “The sacrament of sex (female version),” depicts her ensconced in bed wearing a Victorian bonnet. He wears a halo (perhaps only a saint could get lucky) and bows deep at the foot of the bed.
Yet Jo enthusiastically helped with his business and propped up his ego. She cherished his artistry, and he entrusted her with his safekeeping. In 1938, she wrote, “But glad and grateful am I . . . that I’ve been allowed 14 years of my dear, good Eddy . . . so much of everything I’ve wanted.”
EDWARD AND JOSEPHINE HOPPER FROM THE PERMANENT COLLECTION
At Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown, through Oct. 15. 508-487-1750, www.paam.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.