In 1960 Edward Hopper put pencil to paper and drew a cartoon. It featured a mouse—the juror—surveying a group of paintings, portraits of cats. What prompted Hopper’s caricature was a New York City gallery show called “The Cat in Art.” One gets the sense that the great American realist painter probably thought the exhibit was all a bit frivolous and not just because his wife Jo, an artist in her own right, had decided to participate in it. Hopper apparently attended the opening with reluctance and sat in the corner, “too tired and disinterested to stir around,” according to the [February 29, 1960] entry in Jo’s diary. He was already in his late seventies. Jo had lent two works including “Obituary” that featured a vase of flowers with her cat Arthur peering around the curtain. But here’s the thing about Arthur: Jo hadn’t seen him since 1925.
She acquired the alley cat sometime in 1920; she claimed he had been “sent” to live with her and called herself his “silly mother.” It was Arthur who provided Hopper with a pick-up line. Sharing a ride with Jo from New York to Gloucester, Mass, he said, “Hey, I saw your cat yesterday.” Once they reached Gloucester they began to go out, first sketching together, and soon discovering a common passion for French films and poetry. Their union, though not well received by Hopper’s snobbish mother and sister, had only one critic on Jo’s side. Arthur. She considered herself “a woman with a cat, not just a woman.” And she wrote, about her “sainted Arthur” that he “had seen it all except aviation and the Paris I promised him. I married E.H. instead so he didn’t have a chance to accompany me down the Champs-Elysées on yards and yards of purple wool tape in my blue bead necklace & learn French—even meet Colette!”
With that it is no wonder that Arthur became the bane of Hopper’s existence, perfect fodder for his dark wit and his cartooning. Hopper drew a sketch of himself down on all fours on the floor, begging for something to eat while Jo and Arthur were seated nicely at the dinner table, with the caption: “Status Quo” and the title The Great God Arthur. In another, Studio Readjusted, Hopper shows “‘Eddie’s place,’ a cramped corner beyond ‘Arthur’s sink,’ ‘Arthur’s fireplace,’ ‘Arthur’s stove,’ ‘Arthur’s chest of drawers.’” Jo decided to keep a separate studio for her work and for Arthur to allay the tension. She was torn: “It’s so difficult trying…to keep two males fed…it seems best to keep them apart…” But in the spring of ’25, Arthur disappeared. Jo spent two months looking for him without any luck. And if Hopper thought that might be the end of his wife’s obsession, it was in a manner of speaking only the beginning. The feline became a fixture in Jo’s paintings, feeding her four-decades-long longing for him. Toward the end of her life she had planned to write two books: one on her husband and one on her cat.
One last note on “Mrs. Kit Hopper’s one man jury show”: if you look closely, you’ll see what the mouse sees—the cats in the paintings are all the same cat. Arthur, of course.
Source of quotes: Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, 1995.
Also see: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “Books of the Times: Pitiless on Canvas and in Marriage,” New York Times, October 19, 1995.
(Images: “Mrs. Kit Hopper’s one man jury show” by Edward Hopper, pencil on paper, 8-1/2 by 11 in., 1960; Obituary by Jo Nivison Hopper, oil on canvas, 1948; reproduced for non-commercial use only.)