After living almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week together for three years, in a top floor studio in New York, things between Josephine Verstille Nivison and her husband Edward Hopper began to crack. The two remained cooped up in this small space for most of their time, seeing few people and eating out of tins — conditions that were perhaps inevitably explosive.
According to Jo’s diaries, in which she recorded their violent meetings, she scratched Edward and “bit him to the bone,” he “cuffed” her, slapped her face, banged her head against a shelf and left her with bruises. On their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Jo told him they deserved a “croix de guerre — a medal for distinguished combat”. Edward, for his part, responded by making them a coat of arms out of a rolling pin and a ladle, joking about the honour of mutual domestic violence.
This is pretty much the daily home background of the works that we are now comparing to our last locked days. A background that perhaps, by carefully evaluating the emotional lability of a creative mind — of a genius, as of a madman — could be not so far from that of our lives behind the masterpiece entitled Coronavirus.
Since the quarantine has been in force, everyone is paying a price — whether from a loss of income or a lack of social contact. But for those already in unsafe situations under the shadow of domestic violence, self-isolation could be fatal. In China, where everything started, migrant women were particularly vulnerable to abuse even before the outbreak, and reports of domestic violence have surged since people have been confined to their homes. In some areas, calls to police stations have increased threefold compared to the same period last year.
Women’s groups are already sounding the alarm in Germany or in Italy — which passed tough new domestic violence laws last year after an epidemic of femicide. While in Argentina, according to data from the Femicide Registry of the MuMaLá National Observatory, since March 12, when movement restrictions and later compulsory isolation began, until March 27, there were 7 murders of women at the hands of their partners or ex. Self-isolation also had a direct impact on specialist services, who were already operating in an extremely challenging funding climate.
In France it is estimated that a woman is murdered by a partner or ex-partner every two to three days. Since the start of the lockdown, Paris-based psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen has received several calls and messages from patients fearing for their safety. “Domestic violence perpetrators are already fragile individuals who cannot bear frustration, so the confinement will only worsen the situation,” she told FRANCE 24.
Josephine was painted over and over again by Edward, she jealously insisted on being the model for every single woman he painted but, somehow, she was all of those women, and none of them.
When she married Edward, Jo was 41, and had been painting successfully for 16 years, while Edward had just sold one painting. When they embarked on their hermitic existence, their influences fused to curious effect: as his palette borrowed some of her bright hues he became a runaway success, and when she began to emulate his style she lost all recognition. In the absence of personal reward, Jo exerted such control over Edward’s work that she came to see it as a collaboration. They had no biological offspring, but she repeatedly referred to her husband’s paintings as their “children”, and to her own ones as “poor little stillborn infants.”
Jo and Edward stayed together, when they could have left at any moment. They met as mature adults, they knew how to live alone. But they needed each other. “Ed is the very centre of my universe,” Jo wrote. “It’s such blessedness that Edward and I have each other. Surely I’ll be allowed to go when he does.”
Edward went in 1967, and she joined him less than 10 months later, living the last days of her existence as an amputee. Barbara Novak, who along with her husband, Brian O’Doherty, was among the Hoppers’ closest friends, said they don’t know what Jo died of. “I think she died for lack of him. And he would have died for lack of her. It really was a folie à deux.”
“Those lighthouses are self-portraits. At two lights [at] Cape Elizabeth, it was pitiful to see all the poor dead birds that had run into them on a dark night. I know just how they felt.” Jo
“My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature.” Edward