Editor's note: The following essay, with Endnotes, is printed with permission of the Springfield Library and Museums Association. The essay was included in the 256 page illustrated 1999 catalogue titled Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, ISBN 0-916746-18-6, pp 21-22. In addition to the essay, the catalogue contains an image and provenance of the painting and an exhibition schedule of the artist. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in purchasing the catalogue, please contact the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Isabel Bishop, 1902-1988
At the Noon Hour, around 1936
(Tempera and pencil on composition board, 25 x 18 1/8 inches, Signed lower right: Isabel Bishop, Museum of Fine Arts, James Philip Gray Collection, 39.01)
by Gloria Russell
In 1918, when she was only 16 years old, Isabel Bishop left her home in Detroit, Michigan, to move to New York City. After four years of art school, she rented a studio in the area of the city called Union Square, a seedy, rundown district that was home to commercial buildings housing small industries and offices. Comfortable in this setting, she developed the subject matter that would occupy her throughout her career.
In this neighborhood, Bishop joined colleagues from the Art Students League in a loose alliance known as the Fourteenth Street School. Their apolitical images of contemporary city life served as counterpart to American Scene views of small town and rural life that occupied the Regionalists during the 1920s and '30s. By the time she painted At the Noon Hour, Bishop had spent more than ten years depicting the blue-collar workers, shop girls and secretaries who lived or worked in Union Square, as well as the bums who loitered there. For most of that time, Bishop devoted her attention to the subject of women, singly and in pairs, focusing on them as they went about their everyday activities. Bishop also was preoccupied with natural motion and ordinary human actions like yawning, eating, talking, sleeping, putting on or shedding coats, inspecting makeup. Various and mundane facial gestures permitted her to explore and attempt to reveal the person within. Her interest in the unspoken language of the human face and body enriched her particular insight into the ways people interact.
Although Bishop often depicted women alone, she seemed especially sensitive to and adept at seizing upon the nuances of relationship between two people. The two women in the Springfield painting stand together side by side, arms linked, heads turned toward each other in an alignment that suggests a moment in a conversation during which the right hand figure addresses her listening partner. In relaxed and easy posture, they lean against what seems to be a low wall. Their comfortable interaction gives an impression of genial friendship .
Bishop's response to interactions between her subjects may have evolved from her dedication to drawing as discipline and as a procedure preliminary to painting. She sketched outdoors from direct observation, then invited her subjects to model for her in the studio as she developed those brief notations into more finished drawings. In the next step she translated the drawings into etchings and aquatints, which she considered less flexible than drawing and, therefore, more definitive in determining her visual idea. Only after she had worked on the image in these various stages did she feel ready to create the painting.
Various works on paper precede At the Noon Hour, revealing the different stages Bishop went through to arrive at the painting. From initial sketches when the artist discovered her subject and rapidly noted the pose, clothing and interpersonal relationship, to later studies indicating changes in coiffure and costume, Bishop concentrated only on the figures themselves. However, when she created the painting, she situated the women in a shallow space comprised of a high backdrop wall and the patch of sidewalk upon which they stand. And, as was typical in her paintings from the early 1930s to the end of her career, she obscured particulars of place by meticulously working over the surface, building a haze of marks and a film of paint to suggest the atmosphere through which human beings move.
By taking her themes from the day-to-day life of ordinary people, Bishop adopted the centuries-old mode of genre painting and embedded in her quiet episodes the codes of behavior that were sanctioned by the general public at that time. Bishop described women who were modest in style and circumspect in deportment, and she situated them in areas, such as the park or the square or the lunch counter or the subway, that were between their work world and their lives away from the office or the store.
Feminist scholars believe that by choosing the demure demeanor and these sites, Bishop assented to the belief, widely held in the 1930s, that women were not completely bound to professional careers and that they had to adopt a deferential manner in order to succeed in business or to attract the man who would offer marriage, which would be their true achievement. Bishop's appropriately dressed, well-behaved young women conformed to standards advocated in magazine articles and advice manuals. Self-possessed but never strident, they understood the expectations of the business world and accepted their place in it, willing to reconcile mobility with gender difference.
1. For biographical data, bibliography, and further commentary on her working methods and theories, see Helen Yglesias, Isabel Bishop (New York: Rizzoli, 1983).
2. Lawrence Alloway expands on this idea in "Isabel Bishop, the Grand Manner and the Working Girl" in Art in America (September/October 1975), pp 61-65.
3. Reproductions of a sampling of these appear in Yglesias, p. 83.
4. Critics writing about the 1936 solo show at Midtown Galleries, in which the Springfield painting appeared and won praise, noted her loosened style and atmospheric envelope. One enthusiast was reminded of Impressionism by Bishop's new work, commending especially the liquid air and tonality of At the Noon Hour (New York World-Telegram, Feb. 25, 1936).
5. Twenty years later Bishop said she was trying to "catch [the figures]...when they are in their lunch hour, the hour of respite...in a moment during the day when they have stopped but, in a sense, the work day is continuing." She went: on to remark that her models among the working women of Union Square "are really in motion, because they, of course, are looking for husbands and, at the same time, they're earning their living." See the unpublished interviews with Isabel Bishop conducted in September 1957, by Louis M. Starr of the Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, New York, and made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation.
6. Ellen Wiley Todd, "Isabel Bishop: The Question of Difference," Smithsonian Studies in American Art (Fall 1989). Bishop herself told an interviewer in 1936 that "There is a great discrepancy in American women. Their hats and clothes make them look like flibbertigibbets, light as air, when they are not. Traditionally we show silly people in silly clothes, and the housewife with her hair done up and in a gingham apron. But that is an anachronism. It isn't true of the modern world." (New York Sun, Feb. 15, 1936).
About the author
At the time of publication of the essay, these biographical notes for the author were included in the catalogue.
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