by John Russell
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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 the
prices at auction, but the work. In that, she
set a glorious example.
John Russell (1919-2008)