A product of the Boston School of figurative painting, Gertrude Fiske was one of the better artists in this country a hundred years ago. Some of Fiske’s paintings—accomplished with a vigor characteristic of American realism in the 1920s—are gathered for a retrospective arranged by the Portsmouth Historical Society in New Hampshire. At the initiative of curator Lainey McCartney, the Portsmouth exhibition harvests over seventy of Fiske’s paintings from private and public collections. It is a modest venue for an ambitious agenda, namely the revival of an artist whose reputation has languished for the balance of the last century. The finest two dozen works here would have made a striking presentation in the more auspicious environs of Boston’s or Portland’s fine arts museums, or even the museum in Ogunquit, where Fiske often summered.
Fiske was well recognized during her peak years, roughly between 1915 and 1925. Critics of the time credited the “virility” of her painting, and she amassed professional honors by the bushel. Yet, given Fiske’s association with the Boston School, her subsequent eclipse was inevitable. Her teachers Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell and Philip Hale suffered the same fate. Their depictions of a largely aristocratic world were destined to fall into neglect well before the outset of the Second World War and the rise of New York-based abstraction; the Great Depression saw to that.
Fiske subscribed to a full seven year curriculum at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and her early paintings indicate a respect for the school’s conventions—primarily views of women in genteel environments—as well as a knowledge of Whistler. The small oil sketches Study for Study in Black and White and Woman in Black ostensibly adhere to these influences, and also betray a robust handling more typical of an artist studying in New York. Her studies with Charles Woodbury in Ogunquit encouraged a bolder approach, in both a fondness for gestural paint application and the use of a more chromatic palette. Fiske’s signature works, whether painted en plein air or in the studio, feature strong color, densely painted surfaces, and an interest in complex pattern.
Bettina, the show’s marquee piece, echoes a portrait by Fiske in the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, where a similar tension plays out between an independent female subject and a strident backdrop. As if a red drapery adorned with gold decorations (a nod to Whistler can be seen in the peacock) wasn’t enough, Fiske raised the visual ante by lighting the figure from two separate sources. That the drapery behind the model appears to ignore either light underscores the work’s artifice. The wall hanging is too much, but notwithstanding such stumbles in brinksmanship, one wishes Fiske had pushed further in her exploration of pattern and color. Bettina represents an incomplete resolution of Fiske’s influences: the portrait updates the reserve of the Boston School, while the wall hanging suggests the visceral approach taught by Woodbury. It is reasonable to surmise that these distinctive traits projected a personal duality, a conflict between the demure and the declarative. In her figurative painting, the conservative hold of the Boston School usually had the upper hand. Thus, there is the lovely Woman with Flowers, in which the young woman is again lit from two directions, this time in a more poetic mode that is redolent of Tarbell.
Of mixed success are several portraits of older sitters, who in Fiske’s handling tend towards generic type. The subjects of The Brethren and The Geranium lack the bite evident in paintings such as Mary, with its exemplary description of a young girl’s plaid pinafore and white dress. Perhaps the problem wasn’t a lack of connection with her older subjects so much as the recognition that bright and busy settings would have been inappropriate. In the absence of intricate color patterns, Fiske chose less elaborate, dusky interiors, and you can sense her working as if with a hand tied behind her. At least one such painting, The Carpenter, is rescued by the suggestion of physical movement, though a piercing light source—what curator McCartney rightly describes as “theatrical”—and acute draftsmanship help.
In her landscapes, Fiske was a more unabashedly physical painter, thus the slashing brushwork of On Pine Hill, with its clashing diagonals of white fence and long shadows. The whole business is more or less anchored by a pair of writhing trees, in much the same way that the broad view of Wells, Maine, is both animated and circumscribed by telephone poles. The exhibition notes take this as evidence of the artist’s willingness to engage technological progress in her paintings—one could just as easily see Christian symbolism in a cruciform shape atop the foreground hill. Rather, it seems a smart use of industrial structures to formal purposes; where trees were lacking, wooden posts served as reliable vertical markers and indicators of linear perspective in an otherwise horizontal design.
Fiske’s identity is bound to New England, but her art references and parallels international styles. Having studied with second generation American Impressionists, her realism derives in some measure from French painting, and her forcefulness is sometimes reminiscent of Russian naturalism and even concurrent developments in American illustration. Admittedly, these observations merely provide historical context; more to the point, Fiske observed life and responded to color, painting with a congenial vitality. I remember first seeing one of her paintings, a thickly painted and strikingly suggestive portrait, when I worked as a guard at the National Academy in 1980. I’d never heard of her, and when I mentioned her while teaching last week, neither had any of my students. Fiske is overlooked, even in quarters where figurative art is appreciated. Surely the fact of gender has played a role in her obscurity. Fiske was a more emotionally direct painter than Benson, Tarbell, and Hale and diverges respectfully from their decorousness. Her concealment may also be explained by the number of her canvases still in private collections, as well as her independence; art history favors those who can be easily categorized. A reevaluation of Fiske is welcome. She was a fine and bold painter, an artist who could draw with elegance and paint with brass. A canvas like Bettina may not be an unqualified success, but it is intriguing. That’s a fitting epitaph for Fiske’s painting in general.
Gertrude Fiske: American Master continues at Discover Portsmouth, the Portsmouth Historical Society, through September 30.