I hope my work is recognizable as being by a woman, though I certainly would never deliberately make it feminine in any way, in subject or treatment. But if I speak in a voice which is my own, it's bound to be the voice of a woman

— Isabel Bishop

Isabel Bishop (1902-1988) was a painter and printmaker who depicted life in Union Square, New York, from the 1930s through the 1970s. She was best known for painting common American women performing their daily activities.

Artist Isabel Bishop came from an intellectual household. Her parents were both scholars and educators. Her father, Dr. J. Remsen Bishop, was a Latin and Greek scholar. Her mother, a Suffragist and feminist, wanted to be a writer, but was never published. She learned Italian in order to translate Dante's Inferno into English. The couple had founded a prep school in Princeton, New Jersey, but abandoned their project when family life and work combined became overwhelming. The family moved to Cincinnati where Dr. Bishop taught and eventually became principal at the Walnut Hills School.

Thirteen years after they had two sets of twins, they had Isabel on March 3, 1902, in Cincinnati. The family was often struggling financially, and her father's cousin, James Bishop Ford, was their wealthy benefactor. The family moved from Cincinnati to Detroit, where her father was principal of Eastern High School and taught Greek and Latin. He also wrote textbooks in these fields. They lived on the edge of a working class area, and Isabel was not allowed to play with the neighborhood's children. It was in Detroit in 1917, where Bishop studied at the Wicker School, that Bishop developed her interest in art, however. During Saturday morning art classes, she learned to draw from life.

New York and the Art Students League

In 1918, a 16-year-old Bishop moved to New York City, with the financial help of Ford, to study illustration and design at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. She lived at the Misses Wilde's boarding house for young women on the Upper East Side. She was impressed by modernism, a trend following from the 1913 Armory Show.

"I remember us art students in our smocks, walking in the Armistice Day parade. Then I learned about modern art and put commercial art behind me. I enrolled at the Art Students League and moved to the Village with two other girls," Bishop told biographer Helen Yglesias.

It was then that she decided to abandon illustration and enter the world of fine art. From 1922 to 1924, she attended classes at the Art Students League of New York. First, she studied with modernist Max Weber, then with realist painter Kenneth Hayes Miller. She studied the techniques of the European Masters, but was also influenced by a group of New York social realists led by painter Robert Henri and known as the Ash Can School for their depictions of back yards, alleys, and trash cans.

The Fourteenth Street School

She became friends with Reginald Marsh who also admired Miller. Marsh, also a student at the League, was a Yale grad, whose first job in New York was reviewing burlesque shows for the Daily News. She was influenced by Marsh's drawings and prints of working-class subjects. She also developed a friendship with Guy Pene du Bois, another teacher at the League who painted satiric pictures of the New York café scene.

Bishop left the League, she set up her first studio on Union Square. In 1926, she lived and worked at 9 West Fourteenth Street in a loft. It was here that she became part of the group known as "The Fourteenth Street School," along with Reginald Marsh and the Soyer brothers. She later returned to the Art Students League to study mural painting with Miller. That same year, at age 24, she tried to commit suicide on three different occasions because of a love affair that ended badly. She jumped into the Hudson River in the middle of the night. She commented later that her body wouldn't die, that it started swimming.

In 1931, Ford funded a trip to Europe for Bishop. She traveled with Kenneth Hayes Miller, Reginald Marsh, and Edward Laning. She toured museums and studied the techniques of the Great Masters. When she returned to Union Square, she started her first drawings of the Square and its people. In 1932, she painted "Virgil and Dante in Union Square," now housed at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. A favorite of Bishop's, for many years it hung in her house at Riverdale.

Marriage and a New Studio

Donning a white smock and tennis shoes at her studio, Bishop was a very private person who worked slowly. She never needed to depend on her work to earn a living, however. On August 9, 1934, at the age of 32, she married Harold G. Wolff, a leading neurologist. The couple had a son, Remsen, born on April 6, 1940. Their happy 28-year marriage ended with the death of Dr. Wolff on February 21, 1962.

The doctor had a keen interest in art and wholeheartedly supported her work. As Bishop once said, "He found no contradiction between science and art. As far as truth and reality were concerned, there was no either/or about it."

Also in 1934, Bishop took a studio on the top floor of an office building at 857 Broadway on Union Square. She kept that same studio, taking the subway from 242nd St. near her home in Riverdale, the Bronx, to Union Square until she had to give it up in 1984 after the onset of illnes.

Painted the Working Girls

‍ The first painting to bring Bishop national recognition was her "Two Girls," which was purchased in 1936 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The two girls were a waitress, Rose Riggens Hirschberg, and her friend Anna Abbott Sweeters. Rose was quoted in the New York World-Telegram, "I can't get over it - this picture causing all the commotion. I never thought much about it. I thought about how Miss Bishop used to come into Childs in the morning and have three cups of black coffee and toast for breakfast." Bishop became most famous for her portraits of the working girls of New York. Suspended in time, female friends were pictured in parks, soda fountains, and snack bars from the 1930s through the 1960s. She described these pictures as an effort "to catch the fleeting moment without freezing its flight." Bishop is also known for her introspective nudes. Her figures are almost always depicted in motion, doing some activity, undressing, clipping toenails, bending, or reaching. In March 1936 she showed her work at the Art Students League where she was employed as an instructor that year. In 1938 she painted a mural for the New Lexington, Ohio, Post Office. The work, an 11-foot long oil on canvas, called Great Men Come From The Hills, was commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts of the U.S. Treasury Department.

In January 1939, an art critic at Time wrote, in an article titled, "Bishop's Progress": "In the last few years Isabel Bishop's paintings have mildly haunted many a visitor to bit exhibitions. Her style, formed by thorough study at Manhattan's Art Students League and exceptional resistance to its influence, is noted for: (1) sensitive modeling of form, and (2) a submarine pearliness and density of atmosphere. The thing she feels about (the working girls) and tries to communicate in her painting, she says is their 'mobility in life,' the very fact that they do not belong irrevocably to a certain class, that anything may happen to them.

Years of Recognition and Reality

During the 1940s, she continued to develop a name for herself in the art world. In 1940, she exhibited her work at the New York World's Fair, won first prize at the American Society of Graphic Artists show, and was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design in New York. She also held a solo exhibition at the Herbert Institute, Atlanta. The following year, she was elected an Academician of the National Academy of Design in New York.

In 1942 she was awarded the Adolph and Clara Obrig Prize of the National Academy of Design, New York, for oil, "Nude by Stream." She also developed a relationship with the National Institute of Arts and Letters in New York: In 1943, she was presented the Arts and Letters Award, the following year, she was elected a member of the Institute, and in 1946, she became the first woman to be elected an officer of the Institute when she was elected vice president. She continued to hone new skills as well, studying engraving at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1945.

In the 1950s, she became one of the founding members of a new journal called Reality. Raphael Soyer started the journal for realist artists. She told interviewer Barbaralee Diamonstein in Inside New York's Art World in 1979, "In four years we issued four copies - four copies in four years - and these weren't sold, we sent them to universities and libraries and so on. Art magazines became absolutely furious. They wrote long diatribes … after four issues there was no use going on - we had all said what we had to say. But it is remembered now as a sort of collector's item."

During the mid-1950s, she continued to collect honors for her work. In 1954, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degree from Moore Institute of Art, Science and Industry in Philadelphia. She was awarded the first Benjamin Altman Prize of the National Academy of Design in New York for "Girls in the Subway Station" in 1955. During the summers of 1956, 1957, and 1958, Bishop taught at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. She resumed teaching there in 1963.

Pride and Prejudice

The Whitney Museum held a retrospective of her work in 1975. In 1976, E.P. Dutton & Co. published a new version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with Bishop's illustrations, as well as an afterword written by the artist. Bishop's work for the book had been commissioned in the mid-1940s, but for various reasons, the publication had been delayed some thirty years.

The late seventies and the eighties saw Bishop receiving more recognition. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter presented her with an Outstanding Achievement in the Arts Award. In 1982, she received the Skowhegan Governors Award, and in 1987, she was awarded the Gold Medal for Printing of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Isabel Bishop died of Parkinson's disease at her home in Riverdale, the Bronx, in February 1988 at 85. Funeral services were held at Christ Church in Riverdale. Yglesias met with her only weeks before she died. She commented, "Always meticulously groomed, even during the last days of her life, her hair smoothly done, her skin surprisingly luminous and unlined, Isabel Bishop was the epitome of the perfect lady, the perfect hostess."

In 1975, biographer Karl Lunde appraised Bishop's work: "She speaks to a sophisticated audience, to viewers aware that the woman reading a letter in a Vermeer or the peaches in a Chardin are only superficially the subjects of those paintings. The real subjects are problems of art taking one beyond mere appearance. The artist, with each stroke of the brush, transforms, reforms, rearranges, selects, magnifies, rejects, organizes and reorganizes. Relationships are Isabel Bishop's theme; the human figure, the means."

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.

Two Girls, Isabel Bishop, 1935, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

"Great Men Came from the Hills"
Post Office - Lexington, Ohio  -  Isabel Bishop. 1938

Public Collections

The works of Isabel Bishop are present in an impressive list of public collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts

American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York

Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia

Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland

Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, Memphis, Tennessee

Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio

California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Clearwater Gulf Coast Art Center, Clearwater, Florida

Colby College Art Museum, Waterville, Maine

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Taylor Museum, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Columbus, Ohio

Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, Texas

Davidson College, Davidson North Carolina

Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware

Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa

Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York

Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Fort Wayne Art Museum, Fort Wayne Indiana

Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

John Herron Art Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California

McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, Texas

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Montclair Museum, Montclair, New Jersey

Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts

Mulvane Art Museum, Topeka, Kansas

Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts

National Academy of Design, Ranger Fund, New York

National Collection of FIne Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Nebraska Art Collection, Lincoln

Nelson Gallery of Art, Atkins Museum of Fine Arts, Kansas City, Missouri

New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut

Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey

New York Public Library, New York

Palmer Museum of Arts, Pennsylvania State University, University Park

"Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York

Solo Exhibitions

1939    Herbert Institute, Atlanta, Georgia

1945    Smithsonian Institution Washington, D.C.

1957    Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts

1960    Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia

1972    Wood Art Gallery, Montpelier, Vermont

1974    University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson; Wichita State Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas

1975    Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1977    Weatherspoon Art Museum, Weatherspoon, North Carolina; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina

1981    Associated American Artists Gallery, New York;  Kirkland College, Clinton, New York

1983    St. Gaudens Museum, St. Gaudens, New Hampshire

1985    Loyola Marymount University, Laband Art Gallery, Los Angeles, California

1988    Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, New York

Group Exhibitions    

1936    Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1938    Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond

1939    "Golden Gate International Exposition," San Francisco, California

1940    Exhibition of Society of American Artists, New York World's Fair, New York

1942    American Fine Arts Society, New York

                Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

                St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri

1943    Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

1945    Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

                National Collections of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

1946    Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

1947    Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

                Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

1949    Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts

1950    Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1951    Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

                Toledo Museum of Fine Arts, Toledo, Ohio

1955    Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

                Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

1957    Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

1959    Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, Indiana

                New York Coliseum, New York

                Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, Norfolk, Virginia

1960-61    Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond

1961    Minnesota Museum of Art, St. Paul, Minnesota

                Suffolk Museum and Carriage House, Stony Brook, New York

1962    Hunterdon County Art Center, Clinton, New Jersey

1963    Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Champaign

1965    Gallery of Modern Art, New York

1966    Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, Michigan

                High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia

                Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York

                Westmoreland County Museum of Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania

1967    Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Champaign

1968    Heckscher Museum, Huntington, New York

1969    Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts

                Oklahoma Museum of Art, Oklahoma City

                Tennessee Fine Arts Center, Nashville

                Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1970    Colby College Art Museum, Waterville, Maine

                National Arts Club, New York

                Joint Exhibition with Dorothea Greenbaum, New Jersey State Museum Trenton

                Oklahoma Museum of Art, Oklahoma City

                Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine

1971    Akron Art Institute, Akron, Ohio

                De Cordova and Dana Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts

                National Institute of Arts and Letters, New York

                Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, Norfolk, Virginia

                Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

1972    American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York

                Butler Institute of American Art, Yougnstown, Ohio

                Museum of Art of Ogunquit, Maine

                Wood Art Gallery, Montpelier, Vermont

1973    American Academy of Arts and letters, New York

                Associated American Artists Gallery, New York

               Audubon Artists, New York

                Minnesota Museum of Art, St. Paul

                Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1974    Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana

                Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts

                Museum of Philadelphia Civic Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1975    Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

1977    American Embassy, London

                Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

                New York University, New York

1979    Middendorf Lane Gallery, Washington, D.C.

                Sixth British International Print Biennial, London

                Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas

1981    Associated American Artists, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

                Grand Central Art Galleries, New York

               Swain School of Design, Bedford, Massachusetts

1982    Berman Art Gallery, New York

                C.W. Post Center, Long Island University, Greenvale, New York

                Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama

                Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York

                Rutgers University Art Gallery, New Brunswick, New Jersey

                Union Square, Open Studios, New York

                University of Maryland Art Gallery, College Park

1988     American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York



1936    Noyes Memorial Prize, Society of American Etchers

1941    Watercolor Prize, Butler Institute of American Art

1942    Adolph and Clara Obrig Prize, National Academy of Design

1943    Arts and Letters Award, American Academy of And Letters

1945    Third William A. Clarke Prize, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Andrew Carnegie Prize, National Academy of Design

1946    First Pennel Purchase Prize, Library of Congress

1947    Noyes Memorial Prize, Society of American Etchers, American Artists Group Prize, Society of American Etchers

1953    Walter Lippincott Prize, National Academy of Design

1955    Benjamin Altman Prize, National Academy of Design

1957    Joseph S. Isadore Medal, National Academy of Design

1967    Benjamin Altman Prize, National Academy of Design

1968    National Arts Club Gold Medal

1970    National Arts Club Gold Medal

1972    Creative Oil Prize, Audubon Artists Annual

1973    Best Oil Award, National Arts Club

1974    Purchase Prize, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum

1975    Creative Arts Award Medal for Painting, Brandeis University

1979    Outstanding Achievement in the Arts Award, presented by President Jimmy Carter

1982    Skowhegan Governors Award

1987    Gold Medal for Painting, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters



 1944    Member, National Institute of Arts and Letters, New York

1954    Honorary Degree, Doctorate of Fine Arts, Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1964    Benjamin Franklin Fellow, Royal Society of Arts, London

1971    Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York

1979    Honorary Degree, Doctorate of Fine Arts, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine

1983    Honorary Degree, Doctorate of Fine Arts, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts        

Bibliography: Isabel Bishop." Biographies. Answers Corporation, 2006. Answers.com Lunde, Karl, Isabel Bishop, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1975. Yglesias, Helen, Isabel Bishop, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1989.