Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Gertrude Horsford Fiske. Nude. 1922. Oil on canvas, 40 1/4 x 50 1/4 inches.

I came across a reproduction of this Gertrude Fiske painting while flipping through a slick sales catalogue that arrived in the mail today from Vose Galleries in Boston. The painting struck me first as startling, then intriguing, and finally, as quite possibly a great and enduring work of art.

Maybe I lead a very interior life, but "Nude" seems more powerful than anything I've seen by milquetoast figural Impressionist Mary Cassatt, the only other female American artist anyone can name (okay, except for Georgia O'Keefe, but she didn't paint the figure). Notwithstanding those who saw Fiske's painting exhibited in the 1920s or at Vose in 1987 (after its deaccession by the Carnegie Institute in Philadelphia), the painting remains in my opinion an unacknowledged masterpiece of American art.

The artist is Gertrude H. Fiske (1879-1961), a Bostonian who studied at the Boston Museum School during the first decade of the 20th century, when the first American women began receiving the kind of artistic training available to men for hundreds of years. She succeeded brilliantly as a portraitist and a serious artist during the 1920s and '30s before dropping off the art history map in the excitement over modernism, abstract expressionism, et al. She's never had a museum retrospective nor a book written about her or a catalogue raisonnee, and therefore her greatest works have rarely been seen.

It was the realistic, un-idealized treatment of the female body and the strangely vague yet alert expression on the face of the woman in Fiske's painting that stopped me. But it was the way the mirror reveals her true (and decidedly "darker," even despairing) self that intrigued me. Is this painting a nude or a deconstruction of the conventions of the nude? Unlike the hundreds of other artists who have painted women with mirrors, Fiske uses the mirror (traditionally a symbol of vanity in Western painting) not to signify obsession with the exterior but, on the contrary, to explore her figure's interiority. The reflection is a doppelganger, a darker double that harbors a deeper truth about the protagonist. The woman occupies an ambiguous relationship to it; it's as though she's drawn toward it yet unable or unwilling either to view it or to look away.

A New York Times reviewer perhaps sensed something of this when he saw it at the National Academy in 1922. The critic noted that "the contrast between the reflections in the mirror and the actual object reflected is handled with true painter's magic ....," but he failed to read the psychological and socio-critical overtones. In praising the "noble structure of the design," the reviewer made me realize that the mirror is not only enormous but that it takes up more than half of the composition, and that its curved top and reflected windows evoke the dignity and "nobility" associated with the Greco-Roman architectural settings of French neoclassical painting. By the same token, the eternal complexities and intrigue of mirrors becomes what the painting is "about."

An Unacknowledged Master

I assert that Fiske's serious studio work probed the psychological and social dimensions of female life with a power and depth that very few artists, male or female, had ever achieved. Her only rivals are Picasso during his blue period, Eduard Manet (absinthe drinker, Bar at Folie Bergeres) and John Singer Sargent, whose Daughters of Edward Boite, a veritable Ph.D thesis on prepubescent female psychology, is enough to admit him into the circle.

Clearly, Fiske is more than a "mere" Boston School painter (the metier of which seems to have been largely art for art's sake, in the form of exquisite impressionistic paintings of elegant haute-couteur women). Consider these two paintings of the same subject - women with bowls of goldfish - one by Fiske and one by a far more famous Boston School painter, Fiske's contemporary, Childe Hassam.

Gertrude Fiske. Goldfish.

Childe Hassam. Bowl of Goldfish. 1912.

Immediate observation: totally different moods. Hassam's impressionistic treatment is a technical tour-de-force of the painting of light, for which the subject is little more than a pretext. The woman could be standing next to a vase of daffodils and Hassam would have achieved the same effect. Not true of Fiske's treatment in the least.

Fiske's painting, also a masterful treatment of light, is a somber meditation on the place of women in society. While Hassam's goldfish bowl contains an apparently random number of fish, in Fiske there is one for each woman, stressing the parallel relationship between them. Whereas Hassam has turned his figure's face outward, toward the outdoors, lending it the warm glow of reflected light, Fiske turns her figures' faces down and, by implication, inward, draping them in a veil of shadow as they brood upon the fish. Note how she subtly distorts the expression on the elongated face of the woman in white, while the other she clearly fixes in a darkened pout. The latter's hands rest upward in an expression of listlessness akin to despair. Behind the figures, Fiske has added strict vertical slats of light and shadow that suggest the bars of a cage. Artists had painted women with goldfish in many ways, but incredibly, no one had ever thought of expressing Fiske's plain and devastating message.


  1. CV> ...the only other female American
    CV> artist anyone can name.

    Surely not?

    First name off the memory stack: Judy Chicago. Not a particular favourite of my own, and not a figure painter (unless particular anatmical details count) but a well known name?

  2. She is an extraordinary painter. Thanks for bringing her to light. Nice analysis of the painting. Calling Mary Cassatt a milquetoast is a bit too critical, though, as her life story would not suggest it and her aims were not as deep. She was most interested in the surface of the painting.

  3. Very nice post Chris ! Powerful statement in her work.

  4. Felix- Good call on Judy C, and I suppose Diane Arbus might be a quick come-to-mind for a good number, so perhaps I'm being too cynical on this point. However, I think the statement could stand in relation to 19th century American woman, eh?

  5. Hey Julie -
    I need to study Cassatt a bit more. Could you point me to a favorite painting or group of paintings I should check out?

  6. Mary-
    Thanks! Nice to see you on here. After all, you were a good part of the inspiration for doing his blog! Ciao.

  7. really enjoyed this post Chris! thanks

  8. Thanks for doing this post. I'd never heard of her and am grateful to be introduced! Observing her paintings with your guiding post - a stunning experience.

  9. Chris, love your posts... thank you..

  10. Hi Christopher,
    Love your posts. As for Mary Cassatt, look at all her paintings in the National Gallery of Art, particularly the Chester Dale Collection.

    I particularly like La Loge, Miss Mary Ellison and Mother & Child. I think Gertrude Fiske could be influenced by her studies of reflection. Here's a link:

  11. Hey Chris,

    You should expand your women of American Art list a little and mention the book "Studio of Her Own" as a reference to research the topic further. Some names to throw out there;

    Cecilia Beaux (1855 –1942)
    Lilian Westcott Hale (1880-1963)
    Julie Hart Beers Kempson (1835–1913)
    Maria Oakey Dewing (1845-1927)
    Ann Sophia Towne Darrah (1819-1881)
    Mabel May Woodward (1877 - 1945)

  12. Julie- Thanks- I'll check that link.
    Banks- Great idea! Thanks for the list.

  13. Hi Chris: I think Fiske is just wonderful. She certainly holds up not only in comparison with other women, (she's as good as Cecilia Beaux, and Hale) but is better than most of the men painting at the time. There's a wonderful portrait by her in the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, which seems never to be on display. It's a masterpiece of golds and yellows and a very strong portrait of a woman. If you're up there you might check it out. Thanks

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  16. Thanks for this. Gertrude Fiske is drastically underappreciated. There was an exhibit of her work in Portsmouth, NH (a few towns south of where she lived and painted in Ogunqiut, ME) in 2018. The catalogue, Gertrude Fiske: American Master (Publication of the Portsmouth Marine Society), is out-of-print but so worth finding!

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