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.
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.