Isabel Bishop’s Working Women Elevate The Everyday While Defying Convention

Isabel Bishop’s Working Women Elevate the Everyday while Defying Convention

Part of the City-Wide Collaborative Women@Work
Complementary Exhibit Taking Care of Business in Wood Museum of Springfield History

In a world saturated with idealized and sexualized depictions of women, the work of Isabel Bishop (1902-1988), who painted from the 1920s to the 1980s, is a welcome respite. The subjects she most often portrayed were everyday women doing everyday things—enjoying a private conversation with a friend while standing arm-in-arm, shrugging into a coat, or checking lipstick with an unselfconscious teeth-baring grimace. Though by description those images might not seem appealing, the portraits are beautiful—in part because they express a humanity that is at once recognizable and relatable. They are also beautiful because Bishop forged her own distinct drawing and painting style, a style that defied conventions.

A rare collection of Bishop’s work is available for exploration at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts November 13, 2018, through May 26, 2019, in an exhibit titled Isabel Bishop’s Working Women: Defying Convention. Guest curated by Julia Courtney this exhibit features Bishop’s masterpieces such as the Springfield Museums’ own At the Noon Hour. Most notably, the show also includes a private collection of rarely seen and never-before-seen sketches, etchings, and paintings belonging to Bishop’s granddaughters, one of whom lives locally.

“Bishop is one of the most important artists of the Modernist movement,” said Judith Barter, Adjunct Professor of American Art at UMass Amherst, and Curator Emerita of American Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Bishop had a certain respect for women not seen in other artists of her time, such as Reginald Marsh or Paul Cadmus, who sexualized the women they painted,” Barter said. “Bishop’s women are dynamic, connected, they have eye-contact, touch, intimacy.”

The friendly, candid connection that exists among Bishop’s women sets her work apart, said Julia Courtney. “Bishop did not depict the self-sacrificing mothers, sex goddesses, and Victorian matriarchs that existed throughout art history.” She offered instead working women, during their lunch hour, doing normal activities.

That everyday subject matter does not take anything away from the skill Bishop employed to portray the women, Courtney said. Bishop utilized the underpinnings of masters such as Rembrandt and Rubens to craft a signature approach to her images. Her distinctive style utilized accomplished figure studies rendered in amber tints in the style of the Old Masters, combined with a barely perceptible perspective grid or linear patterned background, which was her own innovation. Together with color modeling, the grid often obfuscates the images, softening the atmosphere and imbuing the paintings with a quality of feeling that Bishop valued above “finished, finished” paintings, which she abhorred. “Bishop’s unorthodox engagement with traditional techniques allowed her to challenge the conventions of drawing and painting in the early 20th century,” said Maggie North, Acting Curator of Art, Springfield Museums. “She defied the conventions of art and devoted her life to being not a woman artist, but an artist, period,” said North.

Transcending Sexualized Images

American artist Isabel Bishop left her home in Ohio when she was only 16 years old to pursue art in New York City. There she became a member of the Fourteenth Street School of artists who followed in the footsteps of the Ashcan School by realistically depicting urban scenes from everyday life. Bishop, who had a studio overlooking Union Square, specialized in portraying people who frequented the Square. Her subjects most often included the “new women” of the 20th century, office workers, shop girls, and in later years, students at New York University. “In tandem with American Scene Painting of the 1920s and 30s, a movement that aimed to depict average people and places,” said North, “Bishop and her contemporaries, such as Raphael Soyer and Reginald Marsh, made these women the subject of American fine art for the first time.”

“Unlike Soyer or Marsh, however, Bishop did not sexualize the women in her paintings,” North said. Bishop’s subtle and emotive images of working women demonstrate a strength of spirit as the young women infiltrated territory previously occupied only by men. These “new women” reached beyond the boundaries of the previous decades to carve out new roles in the work force as aspiring clerks, stenographers, bank tellers, and office workers, determined to meet the financial challenges of the Great Depression. At the same time, Bishop pushed at the boundaries of the hierarchies of art to produce masterful work that stands the test of time.

This exhibit of over 100 rarely seen works includes a variety of artistic mediums and techniques: etchings, aquatints, drawings, preparatory sketches, copper plates, and paintings. It also brings the collections of Bishop’s granddaughters, who remember frequenting the city’s museums while visiting their grandmother in New York, together for the first time. A rare reproduction on which Bishop superimposed blocks of color to map out a final painting gives visitors a glimpse into the artist’s process as she determined the size and color passages of the painting she would create. In addition, the exhibit unites important examples of Bishop’s work from renowned public collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Phillips Collection, The Butler Institute of American Art, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Smith College Museum of Art, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, and the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMASS, Amherst, and includes the D’Amour Museum of Fine Art’s own masterpiece, At the Noon Hour, which Bishop created circa 1935.

Isabel Bishop’s Working Women: Defying Convention is funded, in part, by the Michele and Donald D’Amour Fund, established in 2008 to bring world class art exhibitions to the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts.

Isabel Bishop’s Working Women: Defying Convention
November 13, 2018 – May 26, 2019
D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield Museums
Guest Curator: Julia Courtney

Image credit: At the Noon Hour, circa 1935. Tempera and graphite on board by Isabel Bishop (American, 1902-1988). The James Philip Gray Collection, 39.01. Photography by johnpolakphotography.com.

Inspired by the Isabel Bishop exhibit, a city-wide collaboration titled Women@Work: Influence and Impact will offer programming, exhibits, events, and opportunities for networking throughout the year. Please see womenatworkspringfield.org for details. Media sponsors for Women@Work include MassLive, Business West, The Republican, NEPR, and WGBY. Logo thanks to TSM Design.

Complementary Exhibit at the Wood Museum of Springfield History

Taking Care of Business
A Century of Women and Work in Springfield
November 13, 2018–May 26, 2019
Wood Museum of Springfield History

Taking Care of Business traces the history of local women in the 20th century as they respond to the changes and challenges of their times. For some this meant entering the work force in traditional and non-traditional ways, for others it was a call to non-paid work for the betterment of their community, and for most women it meant questioning their traditional roles at some point in their lives. From the era of fighting for women’s right to vote to the appointment of Springfield’s first woman mayor, this exhibit looks at the story of Springfield women in transition.