Photography courtesy of Angela Fraleigh and Edward Hopper House Museum
How can a portrait say so much about its subject even when the face is hidden from the viewer?
Ask fans of American realist Edward Hopper, and they might tell you that body language, light, and setting can speak volumes about a person even when the facial expression isn’t shown. Hopper’s paintings Nighthawks (his most famous work), Girl at Sewing Machine, Summer Interior, New York Interior, New York Restaurant, and many others often show people from the back or otherwise not directly facing the viewer, lending an air of mystery and even a hint of sorrow, longing, or loneliness, depending on the audience’s interpretation. It was this mystery, along with Hopper’s personal life, that drew contemporary artist Angela Fraleigh to his work.
Fraleigh’s site-specific installation that ran at the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center in Nyack, New York, from September 2018 through February 2019 featured a series of female portraits exploring the psychological space within Edward Hopper’s paintings and the dynamics of his marriage to fellow artist Josephine “Jo” Nivison. The installation, called Shadows Searching for Light, was a continuation of Fraleigh’s series of paintings representing marginalized female figures in art history and “freeing them from their previous roles” by putting them in a new context. Many of the women in Hopper’s paintings were said to be inspired by his wife, who modeled for him, and this professional dynamic caused rifts in their relationship.
“For more than forty years, Jo devoted herself to helping Hopper flourish in the art world while their personal relationship suffered,” explains curator Elizabeth Colleary. “She was always the stalwart supporter of her husband—serving as his model and muse and meticulously documenting his artistic output—while she struggled to maintain vestiges of her own creative life. Her husband would denigrate her efforts, but she nonetheless plodded on, enjoying the many hours the artists spent painting side by side and producing some of her best, though largely unseen, work.”
“It’s a somewhat sentimental or romantic gesture, photographing a contemporary model in the Hopper home with the same light Hopper would have painted from, positioning the figure in the same place Jo would have posed.”
Fraleigh’s portraits of “Hopper’s women” (who were modeled after poses and gestures from Jo) were accompanied by murals of bright splashes of purple, pink, yellow, and turquoise used as wallpaper throughout the museum. These backgrounds were inspired by Jo’s work—a bold color palette and animated brushstrokes. According to the museum, “They provide a fitting backdrop for paintings that reflect Jo Hopper’s often isolated persona within the context of her relationship with her reclusive husband.” Fraleigh goes on to say that having the privilege to observe the space and know that her paintings were going to be displayed in the place where the Hoppers lived and worked was inspiring. “It’s a somewhat sentimental or romantic gesture, photographing a contemporary model in the Hopper home with the same light Hopper would have painted from, positioning the figure in the same place Jo would have posed,” she says.
“My work is about how meaning gets made and questions how cultural narratives are applied and structured and how that comes to shape our experiences in the world,” says Fraleigh, a South Carolina native who received her art degree from Boston University and master’s from Yale and now teaches at Moravian College in Pennsylvania. Her work is on display for purchase at Inman Gallery in Houston.
Shadows Searching for Light was accompanied by a series of events at the Edward Hopper House; these included a studio tour, a family open house, and an artist-curator talk with Fraleigh and Colleary hosted at the Nyack Public Library. “Jo would be heartened by Fraleigh’s efforts to position her so prominently as an artist in her own right and within her husband’s creative process—” says Colleary, “recognition that is long overdue.”
— V —