Isabel Bishop is one of the foremost women artists of the twentieth century, (1902-1988). She is probably best known for her paintings and drawings of shop girls, secretaries, and down-and out-men around Union Square in New York City. With a keen sense of observation and great technical skill, she portrayed ordinary people in an extraordinary way, often monumentalizing her figures within barely defined contexts, sitting on park benches or soda fountain stools, riding the subway or strolling the neighborhood during lunch hour. She also created a wide range of other work, including still lifes, interior views, and nudes, all of which redefine a classical sense of beauty in a contemporary mode.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Bishop arrived in New York in 1918 at the age of sixteen to study illustration at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. After two years, she enrolled at the Art Student’s League, where she studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller, Guy Pene du Bois, and Robert Henri. In 1926, she moved into a studio that looked out onto Union Square at Broadway and Fourteenth Street.
At the time, the Union Square area was one of the busiest commercial and entertainment districts in the city, although much faded from its fashionable days in the late nineteenth century. Three major department stores were nearby, as well as many industrial lofts and small businesses that employed thousands of people. Numerous vaudeville and burlesque theaters, movie houses, billiard parlors, and amusement game halls were also in the vicinity. The sea of humanity that loitered in the park or passed through the neighborhood on a daily basis provided Bishop with a wealth of subjects for decades.
Bishop found particular inspiration in Renaissance and Baroque art, particularly that of Rembrandt and Rubens. She strove to give life to her figures and capture the essential qualities of suppleness, mood, and above all, movement. As with seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish genre painters, she depicted her prosaic subjects with an uncritical eye, never idealized, but presented in a sympathetic manner that imbued them with an innate humanity. She approached her still lifes and interiors in a similar way, creating artfully arranged and precisely rendered compositions that celebrate everyday objects and elevate the commonplace.
Isabel Bishop’s work is in the collections of major museums across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Cleveland Museum of Art; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She had her first one-person exhibition at Midtown Galleries in New York in 1933. Numerous solo exhibitions followed, including a major retrospective organized by the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1974 that traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art and several other venues, and a traveling retrospective of drawings presented by Bard College in 1989.
Today, works by Isabel Bishop are in the many museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bishop died on February 19, 1988 in Riverdale, New York.
Isabel Bishop was an American painter and graphic artist. Bishop studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League of New York, where she would later become an instructor. She was most notable for her scenes of everyday life in Manhattan, as a member of the loosely-defined ‘Fourteenth Street School’ of artists, grouped in that precinct. Union Square features prominently in her work, which mainly depicts female figures. Bishop’s paintings won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, among other distinctions. (March 3, 1902 – February 19, 1988).
Early life and education
Bishop was born the youngest of five siblings in Cincinnati, Ohio. Founders of a prep school in Princeton, New Jersey, her parents were highly educated individuals and descendants from East coast mercantile families. Though the family descended from old wealth, their immediate status was of the middle class, and financial insecurity forced the family to move often.
Her father was a scholar of Greek and Latin. Her siblings, two sets of twins, were older than her by well over a decade. One set of twins, a boy and a girl, were twelve years older; the other set of twins, also a boy and girl, were fifteen years old at the time of her birth. Her mother was emotionally indifferent and distant from Bishop; she was a suffragist, feminist and aspiring writer who urged her daughters to become independent, strong women. After the family relocated to Detroit, Bishop began her art education at the age of 12 in a Saturday morning life drawing class at the John Wicker Art School in Detroit.
In 1918, at the age of 16 she moved to New York City to study illustration at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. After two years there she shifted from illustration to painting, and attended the Art Students League for four years until 1924. It was there that she studied with Guy Pène du Bois and with Kenneth Hayes Miller, from whom she adapted a technique which owed much to baroque Flemish painting. In addition, she learned from other early modernists including Max Weber and Robert Henri. During the early 1920s she also studied and painted in Woodstock, New York. In 1963, she went to Yale University School of Fine Arts, New Haven.
Bishop was described as an eager intellectual who was naturally inquisitive and independent in her ways. In this period, women were becoming very active in the arts community, yet were still taken for granted. Bishop pushed against this attitude toward women artists with her insistence on applying herself both academically and politically in the art realm. Throughout her educational ventures, she was fully funded by her father’s cousin, James Bishop Ford, who aided her family in their time of need. Writing on this financial sponsorship, Isabel Bishop states that she viewed her gender as an advantage: “I was lucky. I think if I had been a man the relative who sponsored my whole studenthood might not have done so. Men are supposed to make their own way. Young women were supposed to marry. But a young woman putting so much time and effort—being so serious—that was different—that interested him. I don’t think he would have subsidized me if I had been a boy.”
Bishop’s mature works mainly depict the inhabitants of New York’s Union Square area. Her portraits are often studies of individual heads (see Laughing Head, 1938, Butler Institute of American Art); the emphasis securely on the subject’s expression – or of solitary nudes. Bishop also painted multiple-figure compositions, often containing two females engaged in various workday interactions. In the post-war years, Bishop’s interest turned to more abstracted scenes of New Yorkers walking and traveling, in the streets or on the subways. Her signature changed many times over her career, ranging from the use of various pseudonyms to initials; some early pieces are signed I.B, or I. Bishop in both block and script. Her work remains significant as an example of the thematic concerns of the Fourteenth St. School, as well as her contribution to feminism and the “new woman” emerging in urban landscapes. The “Fourteenth Street School,” was a loosely affiliated group named for the area around Union Square, where Bishop, Reginald Marsh, and the brothers Raphael Soyer and Moses Soyer worked.
In the mid-1940s, E. P. Dutton commissioned Bishop to illustrate a new edition of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. Bishop produced 31 pen-and-ink drawings (the originals are now at the Pierpont Morgan Library).
The first retrospective exhibition of Bishop’s work was held during her lifetime at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1974.