Isabel Bishop: printmaker of Union Square

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Isabel Bishop (1902-1988) was a distinguished printmaker, painter and illustrator, who worked in New York’s Union Square for over six decades. Bishop’s style was defined as urban realism and she best known for her etchings of average American women performing daily activities. Bishop specialized in genre scenes, and has been described as a genius at modeling the human figure. Her work grew and changed artistically throughout her 60-year career, however the figure remained her primary subject. Bishop produced more than one hundred prints over six decades and worked in two types of intaglio (a print making process in which the ink goes beneath the original surface of the matrix). At first she used copper plate etching, and after 1959, copper plate etching with aquatint. She leased a studio in the northwest corner of New York’s 14th Street Union Square for 44 years (1934 to 1978). Bishop’s work illustrates the changing face of this famous Square from the 1930s Depression years, when it was filled with vagrants, through the years of war protest, to the students of the 1960s and ‘70s. The many people, fountains and pathways of the Square form the core of Bishop’s work. Art Critic Henry McBride noted that all of Bishop’s people, even the hoboes, “were glad to be alive, and particularly glad to be New Yorkers.”[1] Union Square was home to many artists who became known as the Fourteenth Street School.

Distinct qualities of Isabel Bishop’s art:

  • Precise draftsmanship and meticulously etched lines
  • Sensitive handling of light
  • Conservative use of line
  • Restrained tonality
  • As her career progressed, a less linear and more atmospheric quality enveloped her figures
  • An awareness of the moment at which an action must be frozen to imply the motions surrounding it

Bishop was a member of the National Academy, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Society of American Graphic Arts, the Philadelphia Water Color Society and taught for many years at the Arts Student League. At the age of 16 Bishop moved to New York City to study commercial art, attending the New York School of Design for Woman in 1918. She shifted from commercial drawing to painting in 1920, enrolling at the Arts Student League. During her time at the League, she studied with painters influenced by Cubism, and members of the urban-inspired Ashcan School. In 1930 she held her fist show at the Dudensing Gallery in New York, and this cemented her reputation. She received brilliant exhibition reviews in the New York Times and Time magazine. Her approach to light and shadow was compared to Peter Paul Rubens. Another career highlight was a commission by the publisher of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to illustrate its 1976 edition.[2]

Visual analysis and condition

I examined three of Isabel Bishop’s etchings, chosen from an extensive collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1. Departure, 1944, etching, 5.5 x 3.5 inches, artist proof, unsigned. An edition of 25 proofs were printed by the artist in 1981.

Although inscribed with ‘1944’ the copper plate etching for this print was created in 1939, when the artist was 37 years of age, and at the height of her career. In 1936 she had won the Isaac N. Maynard portrait prize from the National Academy of Design, and her etchings, canvases and drawings were represented in prominent galleries and collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1939, America was beginning to crawl out of the Great Depression and many hoboes still occupied Union Square.

The subject of Departure, Walter Broe, enjoyed being sketched and despite being a vagrant had a happy-go-lucky view of life.[3] Although the artist tended to draw many more females than males, this print is still typical of the artist’s work because it is a portrait of street life. One figure takes up the entire frame and with a conservative amount of meticulously etched lines, some straight and some cross-hatched, the artist was able to convey a lot of information about Walter. Although it is a view of his back and we cannot see his face, the figure sparks an emotive feeling in the viewer. His posture is bent forward suggesting that he is quite aged and slow moving. His suit and coat look oversized and ruffled, which signify that he is not in an economic position to have well-fitted clothes and makes do with anything that keeps him warm. He is wearing a pageboy hat rather than a bowler hat and he is balding. We can all relate to that feeling of trying to find the arm-hole of the jacket when we are leaving a place. The date of 1939 and the fact that this man is alone gives further visual clues about social status and the title “Departure” makes us wonder where he is going, or, where does he have to go? On the other hand this image embodies a sense of hope, because even though he is “down and out” he is still trying to get somewhere; he’s standing and he’s not slumped in a corner. Also the shadows are falling behind him, and so he is obviously looking towards the sun. In 1939, America had seen the worst of the Depression and in this way this figure is a metaphor of economic recovery. I can imagine this figure being assembled into one of the artist’s larger studies, as one person in a crowded street scene.

Printing process and materials

Bishop’s catalogue raisonné states that until 1977, she did nearly all of her own prints but from then on all works were printed under her direction by Stephen Sholinsky of Stem Graphics, New York.[4] The frame on which this image is mounted bears Sholinsky’s chop mark, a stylized, double S, in the lower right-hand margin. The frame of the etching has the title and date written in pencil in the artist’s hand writing in the lower right hand corner but there is no edition number. The print was in good condition, apart from printing ink speckled across the surface, and the dark shading in the background makes the etched black lines less distinctive. There are visible fields of black shading echoing out from the right arm – an imperfection that reminds us that each impression is a unique piece of art. The paper used was a smooth white cotton, and according to the catalogue raisonné, the brand of paper used was ‘Rives’ – a fine French printmaking paper.

Technique

Bishop turned many of her sketches and paintings into etchings. However, she also composed some of her paintings by enlarging photographs of her prints. Her catalogue explains that she often drew on the copper plates from a live model, treating this medium like a sketch. “She did this to capture an immediate, fresh quality that would have been lost from excessive re-working. If she wanted to revise a composition she often turned to a new plate.”[5] Further, the catalogue states that what made Bishop unique was that unlike many artists who made prints after preparatory drawings or successful paintings, for her additional plates were a means of working out compositions that may or may not have made their way into drawings and paintings.

2. Snack Bar, 1959, etching, 7 x 5 inches (approx), proof signed by the artist with no edition number. An edition of 50 was published in 1978.

This image is not mounted on paper that bears Sholinsky’s chop mark, which confirms that it was printed by the artist herself. This etching has the title written in pencil on the left and is signed in pencil by the artist on the right. It does not have an edition number and therefore I presume it was the artist’s proof. The print was in good condition, but has printing ink speckled on the surface, making it appear more worn than some of Bishop’s other prints I looked at of the same age. It has noticeable but light shades of black ink echoing outward from the women’s faces, which distracts from the overall composition.

The etching was created on copper plate, in 1959, which was mid-career for Bishop. It is a quintessential Isabel Bishop image as a large portion of her work show candid moments of two female friends. In this etching, girls with pursed lips suck the last remains of the soda from glass. They are not always flattering portraits but are an honest portrayal of real life. This café scene is a historic record of American culture in the 1950s and shows us the origins of ‘pop culture’ – the fashion, the platform shoes, and the drinking of soda. Coke-a-cola was first advertised on American TV in 1950 so this made public soda fountains increase dramatically in popularity. Other titles Bishop produced in this theme include ‘Soda Fountain’ (1950) and ‘Girl getting on Soda Fountain Stool’ (1959).

After seeing each proof, Bishop would often create another state (or version) by filling areas where she wanted to create more shadow, with vertical, diagonal, horizontal or cross-hatched lines. Sometimes she added more detail around the figures to let the viewer see more of the setting. [6] With ‘Snack Bar’, the artist’s commercial drafting training can be seen in the straight lines of the stool and counter.

 

Bishop had always been interested in depicting women in her art because she was intrigued by the fact that it was impossible to tell what social class they belonged to, and that with the advent of more and more women entering the work place, it was very easy for women to rise in social status. Women had started to enter the work force at a greater rate after the First World War in 1918 (also the same year when Isabel Bishop was 16 and on her way to New York from the mid-west to begin studying commercial art). The idea of being upwardly mobile for the artist was a positive statement about what was possible in American life: that ‘anything could happen’.

 

3. Women Walking the Subway Station, inscribed with title and edition number: 10/30 on the left and signed by the artist on the right. Date: 1963, etching and aquatint, 8.25 x 6 inches.

Sholinsky’s chop mark was not in the lower right-hand margin, meaning that the artist printed this in her own studio. The print was in excellent condition, on fine white wove paper.

Most of Bishop’s prints up until 1959 were etchings on copper plate and then in 1961 she made a major transition to etchings with aquatint and a different approach to the figure and the environment. Always an objective observer, in the post 1961 prints Bishop further distances herself from the personality of the individuals.[7] The compositions became slightly abstract and they focus on capturing the movement of large groups of people through public spaces such as the subway.

Like etching, aquatint uses the application of acid to mark in the copper plate. Where as the etching technique uses a needle to make lines that print in black ink (or whatever color is used), aquatint uses powdered resin in the ground layer, which is acid resistant and creates a tonal effect. The tonal variation is controlled by the level of acid exposure over large areas, and thus the image is developed section at a time. [8]

The etched line (which stands alone and is also visible under the aquatint) defines and gives detail to the figures – such as their ankles, fingers, legs, faces and hair-styles. The variant depths of aquatint have been masterfully used to realistically depict the light hitting the back of the women’s calves, the dappled light on the ground, and the male figure in the distance (on the right hand side). The placement of the middle black square creates distance, so that the viewer can tell that there is another train platform and tunnel in close range and that the figures in the forefront are busy entering or exiting the platform closest to us. Examining the copper plate (pictured below) it is incredible to see how the artist was able to anticipate the how the different tones would work together so powerfully. It demonstrates the amount of planning and understanding of the behavior of the resins needed to achieve the desired result. In printmaking terms the copper plate is known as a matrix – the single original surface that the artist used. Bishop gave this to the Metropolitan Museum the year before she passed away.

The style of this print is much more modern in comparison to Bishop’s previous work. From studying the print you can appreciate that the method of aquatint and the use of black and white with tonal variations is much more complex than etching. Bishop’s work here leans towards abstraction and evokes the feeling of the 1960’s, not only through the fashion and hairstyles, but in the sense that the figures appear fast-moving and confident. The theme of movement within a public space occupied Isabel Bishop in the final stage of her career. She took her sketchbook down into the subway and tried to explore people’s coming and going over space and time, and to show this movement in a single continuum. Her studies of human activity often unify figures with prominent backgrounds in what she called a “seamless web” of movement.[9]

Market analysis

Despite her long and awarded career, Isabel Bishop’s art work is not in great demand and therefore does not command big prices in the art market. The sales and information below provide a snapshot of the market, reviewed from www.artnet.com.

  • Commercial galleries, which handle the sale of Isabel Bishop’s etchings, include Swann Galleries, who sold a signed and inscribed etching of “Snack Bar” (1959) for $1200 in 2009. In 2002, an etching of the same title sold for $750 through Doyle New York.
  • The signed etching titled ‘Girls sitting in Union Square fountain’ (1936) is by far Bishop’s most popular prints in the market place. I found records of at least four of these etchings have sold for around $3500 since 2005 (one by Doyle New York and the other by Swann Galleries).
  • A signed etching of ‘Office girls’ (1938) is a popular print, both in the US and the UK, with sales averaging around US$1000.
  • Interestingly Bishop’s early nudes and etchings of single figures sell for around $1000.
  • Many of Bishop’s works are sadly bought in or sold well under the estimated price. An example of this is ‘Ice-cream cones no 2’ (1945) a signed etching which sold in June 2007 for $269.
  • The only sale of the ‘Departure no 2’ (1939) that I found was in 2001, and this signed etching sold for $431 through Rachel Davis Fine Arts.

I believe that the reason for the relatively low demand is due to the fact that there are multiple copies of the same image (although never more than 30 in an edition). I believe that Bishop’s etchings are a good investment because they are essentially records of New York’s 20th century history. They are also incredible value because they are by a great female American artist who has been compared to Mary Cassatt.

Bibliography

Griffiths, Anthony, Prints and Printmaking: An introduction to the history and techniques. (British Museum Press: Great Britain), 1996.

Isabel Bishop: A catalogue raisonné. Associated American Artists, 1981.

Isabel Bishop: A catalogue raisonné. Associated American Artists, 1985.

Nelson, Dona, and Mendelsohm, John, An interview with Isabel Bishop, Issue, A Journal for Artists, Fall, 1985, p. 5.

Todd, Ellen Wiley, Isabel Bishop: The Question of Difference. Smithsonian Studies in

American Art, Volume 3, No. 4 (Autumn, 1989), University of Chicago Press, 25-41.

Todd, Ellen Wiley, Isabel Bishop: Our Modern Master? Arts Journal, Volume 13, No. 1 (Spring 1992), Woman’s Art Inc, 45-47.

Website: http://austenprose.com/2008/07/17/austen-illustrator-isabel-bishop/ (accessed 03.11.10)


[1]Isabel Bishop: A catalogue raisonné. Associated American Artists, 1985, 6.

[2] Website: http://austenprose.com/2008/07/17/austen-illustrator-isabel-bishop/ (accessed 03.11.10)

[3] Isabel Bishop: A catalogue raisonné. Associated American Artists, 1981, p 12.

[4] Isabel Bishop: A catalogue raisonné. Associated American Artists, 1985, 16.

[5] Ellen Wiley Todd, Isabel Bishop: The Question of Difference. Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Volume 3, No. 4 (Autumn, 1989), University of Chicago Press, 26.

[6] Isabel Bishop: A catalogue raisonné. Associated American Artists, 1985, 15.

[7] Ellen Wiley Todd, Isabel Bishop: The Question of Difference. Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Volume 3, No. 4 (Autumn, 1989), University of Chicago Press, 27.

[8] Anthony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking: An introduction to the history and techniques. (British Museum Press: Great Britain, 1996) 89.

[9] Isabel Bishop: A catalogue raisonné. Associated American Artists, 1985.

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7 thoughts on “Isabel Bishop: printmaker of Union Square

  1. I have an aquatint called Five Women walking 13/30 by Isabel Bishop that I bought in 1968. I would like to know its value.

  2. Thank you for every other fantastic article. The place else could anyone
    get that kind of information in such an ideal means of writing?
    I have a presentation next week, and I’m on the search for such info.

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