Bishop, Isabel (1902–1988)

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Bishop, Isabel (1902–1988)

American artist of genre scenes who is known particularly for paintings of working women and men of New York City's Union Square. Born Isabel Bishop on March 3, 1902, in Cincinnati, Ohio; died in February 1988 in Riverdale, New York; youngest of five children of Dr. J. Remsen (an educator) and Anna Bartram (Newbold) Bishop; attended Easton High School, Detroit, Michigan; John Wicker's Art School, Detroit, 1917; New York School of Applied Design for Women, 1918; Art Students League of New York, 1922–24; married Harold George Wolff, on August 9, 1934 (died, February 21, 1962); children: one son, Remsen Wolff (b. April 6, 1940).

Selected paintings:

Self-Portrait (Wichita Art Museum, 1927); Virgil and Dante in Union Square (Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, 1932); Nude (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1934); Two Girls (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1935); Young Woman's Head (The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, 1937); Lunch Hour (private collection, 1939); Ice Cream Cones (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1942); Subway Scene (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1958); Soda Fountain with Passerby (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 1960); Five Women Walking No. 2 (Wichita State University Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas, 1969); High School Students No. 2 (Midtown Galleries, New York, 1973); Student's Entrance to Union Square (Midtown Galleries, 1980); Self-Portrait (private collection, 1986).

For 50 years each workday morning, Isabel Bishop left her home in the wealthy Riverdale section of the Bronx to catch the early train to Manhattan; at Grand Central Station, she transferred to the subway for the final trip to her studio, located atop an old office building in the then shabby business district of Union Square. Tall, thin, and immaculately dressed, with her hair pulled back to reveal a sculptured profile, Bishop was an elegant, dignified presence. Arriving at her studio before nine, she donned a paint-streaked lab coat and began the day's work. Her method was deliberate and painstaking, involving countless preliminary sketches and etchings, limiting her output to only a few paintings a year. Despite her success, Bishop often admitted to feelings of self-doubt. A quote from Henry James' short story of an artist, The Middle Years, hung in her studio. "We work in the dark. We do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion our task. The rest is the madness of art."

Isabel Bishop was the youngest in a family of four other children (two sets of twins). Her father was an educator, and her mother Anna Bishop was an unpublished writer who taught herself Italian with hopes of producing a new English translation of Dante's Inferno. What Bishop remembered most about her mother, who gave birth to Bishop late in life, was her maternal indifference. "I wanted to be special," Bishop said. "I always wanted more than I got." A 13-year age gap between Bishop and the youngest twins also set her apart. Only her father took a particular interest in her, often inveigling her to take his side against the rest of the family, which did little to bring her closer to her mother and siblings.

When Bishop was still an infant, the family moved to Detroit, where her father taught and later worked in secondary-school administration. She remembers living in an area of Detroit which bordered a working-class neighborhood. Although she was not allowed to play with the workers' children, she was drawn to the warmth of their community, which may, at least in part, explain her later fascination with the community of New York's Union Square. The working women of the Depression and the students who came to dominate the Square in the 1980s would be the subject of most of her paintings.

At age 12, Bishop began Saturday morning classes at the John Wicker Art School. "It was a

shock to walk into class and find a great fat nude woman posing," she recalled. "The theory was that it was best to learn to draw from life." After graduating from high school at 15, she left home and enrolled at the New York School of Design for Women, intending to fulfill her mother's wish that she achieve independence by becoming an illustrator. The disciplinary exercises in drawing that she learned there would strongly affect her later method of painting, but the stimulating ambiance of the revived modern art movement drove the idea of a commercial art career from her mind. She accepted a monthly stipend from a wealthy relative and, in 1920, enrolled in the Art Students League.

With her first teacher Max Weber, Bishop explored cubism and futurism, but Weber's arrogance and relentless criticism of her work in front of the other students was devastating. A better match was found with Kenneth Hayes Miller, who had been part of the Armory Show of 1913 that had introduced the American art world to the modernists. Although Miller was interested in modern art, he had not completely severed his classical ties. "Instead of imitating a current trend," Bishop explained, "he taught us to dig something of our own out of the old masters." Miller's defined ideas about classic form and commonplace contemporary content had a profound impact on Bishop, but the most important thing she learned from him was that art demanded passionate commitment. Among Miller's students at the time was Reginald Marsh, with whom Bishop would have a lifetime friendship, and to whom she would often be compared. Another mentor at the League was the satiric painter of New York café life, Guy Pène du Bois, who also became a friend and ultimately encouraged Bishop's independent growth as an artist. "I was influenced spiritually by Dub," she told a friend, "more by his point of view than by his painting, which is very beautiful and underrated now."

Still leaning on her generous relative for support, in 1926 Bishop made the decision to leave the League and rent her first studio on West 14th Street in Union Square. Setting up her home next to her work space, she was prolific in her attempt to incorporate the powerful influences of Miller into a style uniquely her own. This was a lonely, wrenching transition for Bishop, made more difficult by the end of a love affair, after which she attempted suicide on three separate occasions. In an interview for People magazine in 1975, she described jumping into the Hudson River: "But my body just wouldn't die. It began to swim."

The work of this period appears to reveal little of the emotional turmoil she was experiencing. Bishop experimented with still life, which she did not pursue. Her drawings and etchings show a preoccupation with figures in motion, especially a series related to the simple action of taking off and putting on clothing. Union Square began to emerge as a subject: the park wall, the statuary, and the idle men in sitting, standing, and leaning positions. After a series of drawings of herself—executed, she says "because I was there"—she produced the beautiful Self-Portrait of 1927, the first of a series of self-portraits which would culminate with the ruthlessly honest portrait completed shortly before her death. These masterpieces, as well as her female nudes, are considered by some as unique among American women painters, reminiscent more of Europeans like Käthe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker . Of her nudes, who are usually engaged in some awkward activity, Willem de Kooning reportedly said, "That woman's nudes are the best damn nudes ever."

Another important early work, Dante and Virgil in Union Square, painted for her father when she was only 30, demonstrated her further attempt to assimilate the classic qualities of the Renaissance artists she so much admired. Utilizing the structural devices of Michelangelo and Rubens, the painting is a precursor of later works in which she would use the same composition to portray her fascination with movement. A series of Walking Pictures, done over a period from 1960 to 1980, are examples of this "ballet of everyday life," as Bishop called it. She once told Grace Glueck in an interview: "I keep trying to find some way of getting motion into my figures—motion you can feel in your nervous system."

In 1934, Bishop married Harold George Wolff, an intriguing and brilliant young doctor, and moved to his Riverdale home. Although Wolff was described by colleagues as "a formidably authoritarian and rigid personality," Bishop did not hint at these domineering traits in any discussion of her marriage but insisted that her husband was passionately interested in the arts and had a liberated attitude toward her work. Even after the birth of their son Remsen (1940), Bishop reported that Wolff insisted she immediately return to her routine. "We left the house together every morning; he went on to his work and I went to my studio. There was never any question about it." After 28 years of marriage, Wolff died of a cerebral hemorrhage in February 1962. Her son Remsen, after an apparently difficult adolescence, went on to become a photographer.

By 1940, Bishop was under contract with Midtown Galleries, where she had her first solo show; she would exhibit there throughout her career. Also by this time, she had been part of a number of important group exhibitions and had collected the first of many awards received during her lifetime. In 1935, her oil Two Girls had been purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bringing her national attention. The painting, as well as many of the paired female figures to follow, was praised for its "body language" and "a marked responsiveness to specifically feminine situations." That same year, Bishop was appointed as instructor at the Art Students League. In 1938, she was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department to execute a mural for a post office in New Lexington, Ohio, one of her few large-scale works.

Following her exhibition at the New York World's Fair in 1940, and the award of first prize in a show at the American Society of Graphic Artists, honors showered Bishop, including her election as an Associate of the National Academy of Design in New York. In 1946, she was the first woman to be elected an officer of the National Institute of Arts and Letters since its founding in 1898. In 1974, the Whitney Museum mounted a retrospective, and in 1987 she received the Gold Medal for Painting of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Bishop's numerous sketches, drawings, etchings, and aquatints, which served as studies for proposed paintings, were often praised as masterpieces in their own right, a fact that bothered Bishop, who thought of them merely as preliminary steps. The semitransparent, luminous quality she achieved in her paintings was obtained through careful, painstaking preparation of the canvas. The procedure included prepping the masonite panel with as many as eight coats of gesso, and painting a ground of random horizontal gray stripes made up of gelatin, powdered charcoal, and white lead, creating almost a vibrating surface upon which the drawing was added. Color, overlaid, was used tentatively, with a limited palette.

One of Bishop's most interesting projects was a commission during World War II to make a series of pen-and-ink drawings for a proposed new edition of Jane Austen 's Pride and Prejudice. She labored on the project for a year, working with models and giving utmost attention to the period costumes. Due to a shortage of funds, the publication was postponed, though Bishop's 31 illustrations were shown, along with several new paintings, at a Midtown Galleries exhibition in 1955. In 1976, they appeared in the new edition of Pride and Prejudice, published by E.P. Dutton. In an Afterward to the book, Bishop discussed the effectiveness of Austen's selectivity, the manner in which she limited and controlled what the reader was told and what they wanted to be told. Bishop found much in this literary technique for the visual artist to learn.

Bishop was forced to give up her beloved Union Square studio after a stroke in 1984. During the remaining four years of her life, she worked in a studio in her Riverdale home. Her funeral following her death in February 1988 was marked by a ceremony as quiet and dignified as the lady herself, with a service at her own Christ Church in Riverdale attended by her family, neighbors, and members of the Manhattan art world. She was eulogized only by her priest, who included passages from her favorite poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Although Isabel Bishop was respected both inside and outside the art community during her lifetime, her importance has diminished over the years, perhaps due in part to the overwhelming dominance of abstract art in the United States which began in the 1950s.


Current Biography 1977. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1977.

Lunde, Karl. Isabel Bishop. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1975.

Yglesias, Helen. Isabel Bishop. NY: Rizzoli International, 1989.

suggested reading:

Mendelowitz, Daniel M. A History of American Art. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Reich, Sheldon. Isabel Bishop. Tucson: The University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1974.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Bishop, Isabel (1902–1988)

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