Shirley promises to be a most beautiful film, visually, and a most embarrassing one, dramatically.
I assume that the film-maker, Gustav Deutsch, did enough research to know that Hopper’s model, after 1920, was always his wife, Josephine.
Josephine Niveson was a painter in her own right, who studied with Robert Henri. As Hopper’s Wikipedia entry and his wife’s (under “Josephine Hopper”) make clear, their marriage was close, but volatile, rewarding, but competitive. Feminists might argue that Jo Hopper subsumed her artistic ambitions beneath her husband’s, but it is clear, not only from the Wikipedia articles, but from other descriptions of the Hopper couple, that Josephine was closely involved with Hopper’s work and found fulfilment in that involvement, while Hopper regarded his wife not so much as a muse, which is how some commentators lazily put it, but as a partner, often a spur.
From Wikipedia’s article on Josephine Hopper:
As Edward Hopper's wife and companion for more than 40 years, Jo influenced his work in numerous ways. Perhaps most importantly, it was her example that inspired Edward to seriously take up watercolor, during the summer of 1923. A number of Jo's works depict motifs that would later become important for her husband. The watercolor Shacks, done in 1923, depicts two houses behind a dead tree, a subject similar to many of Hopper's later works. Jo's watercolor Movie Theater—Gloucester (c. 1926-27) foreshadowed Edward's interest in depicting movie theaters: he produced a drypoint of the subject in 1928, and then returned to it occasionally, most famously in the oil painting New York Movie (1939).
Beginning in the mid-1920s Jo became her husband's only model. It was she who thought up the names for a number of her husband's paintings, including one of his most famous oil paintings, Nighthawks. Despite their complicated relationship, she helped when her husband felt insecure about a painting in progress, as in, for example, the case of Five A.M. (1937). As late as 1936 Jo reported that her husband was highly competitive, and that her starting a work would frequently inspire Edward to start his own
I am not complaining about Deutsch’s movie because he strays from the relationship between painter and model, husband and wife, artistic cohorts. If he had decided to dramatize the relationship between the Hoppers I would have carped as much, probably more.
What is so detestable is that the drama which Deutsch has decided to attach to his evidently sensitive and scrupulous cinematic renderings of Hopper’s paintings is one of tawdry, careless, shallow, daytime-TV feminism.
There is a startling melancholy in the scenes that Hopper paints. It extends to all the figures, men and women, whom he sometimes places in them. It is a far more profound and universal emotion than what Deutsch describes, in the trailer above, as “the thoughts, emotions and contemplations” of a woman which “let us observe an era in American history,” a woman who suffered “a fate which a lot of women had in this time, the fate of not having equal opportunities, equal chances.”
I hesitate to put into words what Hopper says so clearly without them, but here goes: Hopper’s work expresses the tragedy of the alienation of the individual from the sharp and beautiful, yet soulless world around him – and when I say tragedy, I mean it, with all the grandeur and heroism that the word can convey.
Deutsch’s inability to recognize the psychological and philosophical depth of Hopper’s paintings or, worse, his choosing to ignore it in order to tack on some easy-to-express trendy political message, epitomizes a failure of aesthetic vision which permeates most art today, no matter how facile and virtuosic its technique.