Isabel Bishop chose her subject matter from the New York street life that flowed through Union Square, beneath her studio window. Although she moved to the Bronx after her marriage, Bishop continued to travel almost daily to her studio to observe and sketch laborers, shopgirls, children, and unemployed men. While Bishop’s art focused on the urban street life, there were two moments—in her youth and old age—when self-portraiture played an important role.
As a young woman in the late 1920s, she found herself a convenient subject, noting that self-portraiture may serve just “to provide oneself a model, especially handy for a young artist as a means for studying picture problems.” In this etching (top), her concerns are formal: structure, form, gesture, and the play of light on a tilted, slightly turned face. The detachment, unreadable expression, and elegant geometry of the head all disguise personality. Even her hand, resting too lightly to support her head, seems merely part of a pose she wished to explore.
After a long, successful career, Bishop returned to self-portraiture when failing health forced her to give up her beloved studio. In a series of unsparing self-appraisals, she conveyed the anguish of her physical limitations. Nonetheless, she continued to challenge herself. Turning away from “mobility” to the depiction of motion itself, she noted, "I found I was much less interested in the genre aspect of the picture, in particularity." In the older drawing (left), one senses the actual rotation of the head. That immediacy, ironically, does not convey the specific individual or precise moment but instead the sense of a timeless, universal truth.
These two self-portraits by Isabel Bishop are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, in the exhibition “Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century” on the second floor. Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings, recently spoke about the pieces in a Face-to-Face portrait talk.
Listen to Wendy Wick Reaves’s Face-to-Face talk on Isabel Bishop (13:34)
Face-to-Face occurs every Thursday evening at the National Portrait Gallery. The next Face-to-Face talk is this Thursday, June 11, when research assistant Jennifer Quick, speaks about the “Wanted” poster from the Boite—Series D by Marcel Duchamp, on view in the exhibition “Inventing Marcel Duchamp.” The talk runs from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. Visitors meet the presenter in the museum’s F Street lobby and then walk to the appropriate gallery.
Etching, 1929 (printed c. 1988–89) / The Ruth Bowman and Harry Kahn Twentieth-Century American Self-Portrait Collection, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Ink wash on paper, c. 1984–85 / The Ruth Bowman and Harry Kahn Twentieth-Century American Self-Portrait Collection / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution