Isabel Bishop's "New Women"

Isabel Bishop: Self-portrait, 1927 (oil on canvas, 14 x 13") Bishop: Self-portrait, 1986 (oil and pencil on gesso panel, 20 x 15")

Isabel Bishop, an artist who associated with the 14th street painters in New York City and who studied with Kenneth Hays Miller, rather quickly found her own voice.  The two self-portraits above can almost serve as book-ends to her career, capturing the qualities of her earlier paintings of women as well as the paintings she did near the end of her career.  From the greater naturalism, rendered in soft, amber tones, to the later style which has a quality of having been erased or washed away even as it gives us a detailed, honest expression in the face, both paintings convey the inner sense of this woman as someone who looks at the world intently around her and makes it a part of herself.

Bishop: Virgil and Dante in Union Square, 1932 (oil on canvas, 27 x 52")

The reality of Union Square and 14th street was department stores: stores with garish signs, huge crowds of women, sale days which attracted so many people that police had to set up cordons and warn visitors to stay away.  Yet Bishop doesn't show us that Union Square.  Her Union Square could be a plaza in a painting by Pierro della Francesca, with the ordered classical buildings creating a backdrop for the just as orderly crowd in front of it, the equestrian statue in the center who seems to be directing traffic, and the figures of Dante and Virgil standing with their backs to us.  In contrast, Reginald Marsh did paint the disorder of 14th street: its less refined entertainment areas, urban inhabitants searching for cheap pleasures, people walking down into the subway stations, and, always, the women who were emulating movie stars–the new American heroine.  Unlike Bishop, whose paintings eventually suggest her own identification with her subjects, Marsh focused on the dazzling degree of diversity found in the street, the spectacle of popular life as something exotic and different from his own life.

Reginald Marsh: Fourteenth Street, 1934 (tempera, 35 x 40")
Marsh: BMT, 14th St. (1932, tempera, 60 x 36") Marsh: Paramount Pictures (detail from larger tempera painting, 1934)

Bishop's 1932 painting of 14th street hints at some of the confusion and chaos we find in Marsh, but in her painting, the the men are enshrouded in the darker colors while the two women are bathed in a whitish glow.  Although they are the center of our attention, they are not the center of the crowd's attention--they walk with a determined gait, looking down, striding purposefully to their destination which was probably work.

Bishop: Fourteenth St., 1932 (oil on canvas, 14 x 26")

Bishop eventually turns her attention to the women she could see from her window overlooking Union Square.  Her paintings of these women generally take three forms: full-length portraits, close-up studies of their faces, and two or three women together at lunch or walking somewhere.  A couple of things characterize these paintings: Bishop begins to develop a style which is rather distinctive in its combination of fully realized bodies, rendered in a soft amber tints, and a barely perceptible gridded or linear patterning behind them.  The subject is also unusual because they’re traditional genre scenes, but unlike the genre paintings that Bishop herself claimed to love, Bishop's paintings are not scenes of people at work or preparing family meals.  These are scenes of women on their lunch hour, often doing nothing more than standing and talking and looking for the men who are rarely seen in her paintings.  Bishop, in interviews about her work, spoke of the genre painting as a painting about the characteristic gesture, that sign which signifies a type of life or person.

Bishop: Two Girls, 1935 (oil and tempera on gesso panel)

As Bishop searched for the gesture which identified the office worker, she created women who would be recognizable from their clothing, their body positions, their hair styles, their activities.  Their faces, although detailed enough to be unique, are rarely as informative as the overall pose and sense of communication we see in the interaction between the two women in her paintings of women together.  And although we do not see them at work, it is easy to imagine that they're on a break from the office and will soon return.  Bishop was portraying another new woman who had previously not been seen in art: the woman who exists as a worker, who is individualized but ordinary, and who is not encumbered with the stereotypical attributes of the sex.

Bishop: At the Noon Hour, 1939 Bishop: Ice Cream Cones, 1942

The horizontal web of brush strokes in the backgrounds, present in so many of her paintings and so unusual, deserves to be analyzed.  The web is something which might suggest restraint and limitations on free movement.  But it’s a horizontal web, and the hazy background does not seem to exist like a cage or prison.  Bishop, again speaking in interviews with critics and writers, discussed the limitations on social movement experienced by women.  But at the same time, she said, she did not see her subjects as victims and she did not think their lives were fixed in one class position.  So she chose the pastel tones and the web-like background to communicate the possibility of mobility within limits.  And as I said in class, I think we should consider the possibility that Bishop may have been influenced by the attraction of cinema--she can't literally portray movement in a painting but she could imply it by pulling our eyes to the left and right with the horizontal patterning, a patterning which gets stronger in her later paintings.

Bishop: Nude Bending, 1949 
(oil and tempera on canvas, 21 x 24")

Whether nude, eating ice cream, or walking down the street, Bishop's women exist for themselves.  And they add a new type to the collection of images of women: not self-sacrificing mothers, not sex goddesses, not Victorian matriarchs–these are women who go to work or school and have a routine and rightful place outside of the home.

Bishop: Five Women Walking, 1967 Bishop: Campus Students #1, 1972