I recently watched “Pollock”, a film that depicts the rise of the famous painter Jackson Pollock and how his wife Lee Krasner helped him.
Before watching this film, I only knew Pollock’s work and technique.
I didn’t know much about his personal life and, more importantly, I didn’t know Lee Krasner and her work.
Realizing this, I wondered if art and love could coexist.
Does one always win out over the other?
Are artist couples always cursed?
To answer these questions, I’ve decided to talk about two famous artist couples: Jackson Pollock & Lee Krasner, and Edward & Jo Hopper.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to provide a correct answer, but it‘s always interesting to talk about them.
- These articles are solely based on my opinion and research. I haven’t read all the books and articles about these couples, so sorry if I’m sometimes wrong.
Jackson Pollock & Lee Krasner
If you’re reading this article, you probably already know that Jackson Pollock was an American painter, best known for having used a technique called “Dripping”.
Unlike her husband, Lee Krasner seems to be very little known.
Why is that? To answer this question, I have to talk a bit about their relationship.
Everything began with a group exhibition called “French and American Paintings” that took place in 1942. Lee Krasner was one of the exhibiting artists, and as Jackson Pollock was the only artist she didn’t know in this show, she decided to visit him. It is said that at that time Krasner’s work was more famous than Pollock’s.
Their relationship started after Krasner’s visit, and they got married in 1945.
They first lived in NY, then moved into a house in Spring. Pollock painted in a barn while Krasner painted in a room on the first floor of the house.
Yes, you read that right: Lee Krasner never stopped painting during her lifetime.
…But she decided to make her husband’s career a priority. In fact, she was really interested in his work, she believed in it and wanted Pollock to be recognized.
Thanks to Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock started to give his paintings numbers instead of titles, so that the numbers wouldn’t influence people’s opinions.
She also introduced Peggy Guggenheim to Jackson Pollock (and this meeting clearly played a big part in Pollock’s career). She also did her best to help him overcome his addiction to alcohol.
Pollock helped Krasner to be freer in her work, encouraging her to push the boundaries. Rumour has it that he appreciated his wife’s work. So it’s clear that the help was mutual. They motivated, advised and inspired each other.
However, Lee Krasner’s dedication to Pollock’s work overshadowed her own career. I think that, especially in those days, women were underestimated and people would say, “Oh, she couldn’t have created that without her husband’s help!”. As if a woman necessarily needed a man to be a great artist. HAHA.
Unfortunately, Lee’s career only really took off after Pollock’s death in 1956. Among many great exhibitions, we can mention her solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1965, and her retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1973. Lee Krasner’s now considered a key figure of Abstract Expressionism.
What would have happened if Pollock hadn’t died so soon?
No one knows, and it would be awful to say that if Pollock had lived longer, Lee Krasner wouldn’t have been recognized for her work.
I‘d never dare to say that.
But I think that what helped her was the passage of time and her tenacity: even though she’s still seen as Jackson Pollock’s wife, people have come to understand that she’s a great artist, and that’s because she never stopped painting. It probably helped that she was “young” when Pollock died and was, therefore, able to pursue her own career.
Edward & Jo Hopper
Edward and Josephine (Jo) Verstille Nivison first met in 1910, but their relationship did not begin until 1923. They got married in 1924.
By that time, Edward was an illustrator and Jo had already exhibited with famous artists such as Modigliani, Man Ray, and even Picasso.
Their story is quite similar to Pollock and Lee’s: Jo decided to focus on Hopper’s career. Rumour has it that this was for reasons of financial stability. Anyway, it feels that Jo made this decision because she thought that Edward’s work was the one that should be known.
She quickly became Edward’s only model. Some say it was because Jo was jealous, others say it was because Edward was stingy. Either way, it doesn’t matter why: Jo - probably thanks to the acting classes she took when she was younger - was a great model. Edward’s paintings show that she knew how to embody all the female characters.
Jo also became Edward’s impresario and agent. She wrote down everything about his paintings: their dimensions, the dates they were created, the exhibitions in which Edward displayed them …And, as Edward was quite shy and introverted, Jo would talk to dealers and curators for her husband. In short, she pushed him to create and exhibit his work.
Sadly, this attention ended up overshadowing Jo’s career. It is said (I’m not sure about that) that she kept trying to exhibit her work, but this latter wasn’t really appreciated.
In addition, Edward didn’t value his wife’s work.
It seems that he almost rejected it.
Despite this lack of support, Jo never stopped painting. They even painted next to each other in their Cape Cod home. According to some people, this proximity resulted in similar paintings (and we’ll never know who imitated whom).
After Edward’s death, Jo donated her and Edward’s works to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Edward’s paintings have been kept. But concerning Jo’s, there are various rumours. Some say that the museum discarded and/or gave most of her work to hospitals and a university, while others say that a considerable amount of her work has been recently found and exhibited.
I definitely prefer this latter rumour.
To answer my first question, I’d say that art and love can coexist, but this coexistence can sometimes leave somebody behind.
In Pollock / Krasner’s case, Pollock became famous thanks to his work, but also thanks to his wife. Krasner had to wait much longer to be recognised.
I don’t think Pollock asked her to focus on his career, I think it was her decision. But what would have happened if she hadn’t decided that? Would Pollock have become as successful and famous as he is today? I’m not sure.
I believe the same thing would have happened to Edward and Jo Hopper.
The best American expressionist painter owes much of his success to his wife. Unfortunately, it seems that Jo’s work has still not achieved the recognition it deserves.
I think that, out of respect for these women, people should never forget that
Jackson Pollock and Edward Hopper wouldn’t have been the legends they are without their wives’ help. “Behind every successful man is a woman” seems to be the most appropriate sentence here. Jackson Pollock and Edward Hopper were great artists. But they needed Lee and Jo to be even greater.
I’m neither Lee nor Jo, so I can’t say what was going on in their heads. Maybe they were happy with the way things were going. I think that they probably made the decision mentioned above because, at that time, it was really difficult for a woman to be a recognized artist. In any case, these women can be proud of what they did.
Edward Hopper died in March 1967. Ten months later, Jo Hopper died. It’s as if they couldn’t live without each other. This makes me believe that art never broke them apart.
Regarding the Pollock/Krasner couple, Jackson Pollock died in 1956.
At that time, Pollock and Krasner were separated but, despite everything that had happened between them (quarrels, Pollock’s mistress…) Krasner never stopped supporting and talking about her husband’s work.
Pollock and Krasner were even buried together. So, from this angle, art didn’t win out over love and respect.
I’m not going to say that all artist couples are cursed.
A few months ago, I wrote about Virginia and Leonard Woolf. I don’t think Virginia Woolf would have been able to write all of her texts without the support of her caring husband. He didn’t sacrifice his career for hers, but he definitely helped her.
To conclude, I’d say that in our current society, critics sometimes belittle a woman’s work if her partner is an artist, because people still tend to underestimate women. But it feels like women are more supported than before.
I also believe that many women (including me) wouldn’t do what Lee and Jo did, i.e. sacrificing their careers for their partners’.
What happened in history has led to the fact that, generally speaking, women are more independent and therefore more able to do everything to succeed.
But it doesn’t mean that they don’t care about their partner’s career.
It just means that there’s a balance to be found.
- Books that I highly recommend:
- Artifacts : fascinating facts about art, artists, and the art world
- Edward Hopper: A Journal of His Work, by Brian O’Doherty
- Les Heures Suspendues, by Catherine Guennec