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The work was intended to seize a moment, tell a tale, and give a renewed dignity to people for whom high art had not always had a place.

Isabel Bishop
By Helen Yglesias

Foreword by John Russell

Not long after I came to live in New York, I saw a painting by Isabel Bishop of young women walking around. Almost without exception they had books under their arms. They had a strong, easy, unregimented way of walking. It was walking, not marching, and they walked with head straight and eyes open.

They were mightily impressive. With that walk, and those books, they would make the world—and, not least, the nursery—a better place. The truth would set them free, and their liking for life-long perambulation would keep them well. There were young men in those images, too. How lucky they were to walk in the same country, the same city, and the same street as those direct, upright, well-oriented young women!

Later, I used sometimes to see Isabel Bishop herself in the subway. Tall, slender, and straight, she was a calming presence. (I did not yet know that she had prized the Art Students League in her early twenties because, as she once put it, “There were even fights at lunch.”)

Riding those drab trains, she was impartially curious as to the looks, nature, and possible history of every one of our momentary companions. As recently as 1966, she had portrayed the subway station underneath Grand Central Station as a place in which people stood tall and walked free and had room to swing their arms, rather than as a place to get out of as fast as possible. And here she was still watching out for the young people who would one day deserve the keys of the city.

When the conductor called “Fourteenth Street, Union Square!” she got out, and I thought better of the day, and the city, because I had seen her. To begin with, there were so many things that se was not. She was not aggressive, not sentimental, and not deceived. She knew the score, where this particular big city was concerned, but she did not despair or give up. Worrisome as many things were, she was still confident that one day, somehow people, now very young, would change the lot of women in big cities for the better.

Also, she had a sense of continuity. Already in 1932, when she painted her Dante and Virgil in Union Square--a remarkable achievement, by the way, for someone just thirty years old—she saw in Union Square a timeless, universal quality. It was a place in which not only Dante and Virgil but Diogenes might one day pass by. It was an American agora, a place in which amateur logicians could argue the day away and know that they were part of a radical tradition that had drifted across the Atlantic from Athens and Rome. As for the bums—well, weren’t there bums in Athens, too?

The difference was that in Union Square there were thinking women, as well as thinking men. Isabel Bishop was sensitive, all her life long, to those thinking women, many of whom were as yet unmarked by life. She was alert to the potential both for happiness and for an irrevocable, untold misery that exists at every stage of metropolitan life. In her work, she never lectured and rarely told an identifiable story. But, as she moved in and out of the unidentified lives that she set down on paper on canvas, her concerned good will as everywhere evident.

Her work related, as has often been said, to a specific and distinctly American tradition. Its idiom had been pioneered at the turn of this century by Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, George Luks, John Sloan, and other. It was carried forward by Kenneth Hayes Miller and Guy Pène du Bois (both of them former students of Robert Henri) and by Reginald Marsh. It was reportorial in style, anecdotal in tone, and shorn of all extraneous or merely complimentary material.

The truth mattered to all those artists, and their ideal was to tell it under the mask of entertainment. The work was intended to seize a moment, tell a tale, and give a renewed dignity to people for whom high art had not always had a place.

Isabel Bishop’s work was not anecdotal in that sense. Where her men colleagues pinned people down and wrapped them up, she gave them a clear steady glance and went on her way. She was of her own day, but for all the rapid, spontaneous, instinctive quality of her observation she knew how to reach back into European Old Master painting and drawing and printmaking for support and encouragement. John I. H. Baur, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, once said of her that “in some mysterious manner which I do not really understand, her paintings carry forward the great tradition of north European seventeenth-century figure painting.”

Others saw an American derivation. Reginald Marsh was a close friend of Isabel Bishop’s, and he once said that her art “cuts to the truth. It is at once original and traditional, as is that of Thomas Eakins.” Either way, it was the truth that counted for her. And that truth was in everyday things and in what many would consider to be everyday people, as much as in the huge commotions of Old Master painting.

Talking to Cindy Nemser in 1976, Isabel Bishop traced her absorption in everyday sights to the year of her childhood, when her father moved his family from Princeton to Detroit. In Princeton, he had had a small school of his own. When they moved to Detroit, it turned out that although the school was bigger and grander, the salary did not allow the family to live anywhere but in what she called “a very lower, lower-class neighborhood.”

We were very isolated in Detroit and had almost no social life. I wasn’t supposed to play with the children on my block, but I wanted to. I thought, they have a warmer life than we do—they all see each other, and we are isolated.

After an experience of that sort, New York life—even in its more somber aspects—had an affirmative quality. So did the particular perseverance of those New Yorkers who stayed in the city, craved no other place in the world, and radiated an unchanging and fanatically held belief in the pursuit of painting as something absolutely important, irrespective of the degree of talent or of any external circumstances whatever.

Isabel Bishop had that kind of commitment. As she once said to Eleanor Munro, “One simply found oneself in a state of commitment. And after that, there wasn’t any choice—except jumping off a roof.” There is no way to counterfeit that commitment, and Isabel Bishop never needed to. In her own sole self, she spoke for an uncorrupted art world in which what mattered was neither the acclaim nor th
e prices at auction, but the work. In that, she set a glorious example.

John Russell (1919-2008)

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