Independent Spirit: Fiske Owns It In Portsmouth

Gertude Fiske, Woman in White, ca. 1917, oil on canvas, 36” x 29” (photograph by Jeremy Fogg).

Gertude Fiske, Woman in White, ca. 1917, oil on canvas, 36” x 29” (photograph by Jeremy Fogg).

Linda Chestney

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
— Pablo Picasso

Picasso said it, but American Master Gertrude Fiske lived it. She certainly paid her dues. She learned “the rules,” or perhaps more accurately, she absorbed the societal expectations of New England at the time, and then she allowed herself — encouraged by such mentor greats as Edmund C. Tarbell, Frank Benson, Philip Hale and Charles Woodbury — to carve her own path.

Fiske (1879-1961) was born into a prominent Massachusetts family and spent much of her time farther north in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Downeast Maine. Her work was lauded for her ability to “see” a scene or a subject. That ability, that gift, set her apart.

A founding member of the Guild of Boston Artists and later the Ogunquit (Maine) Art Association, Fiske was the first woman ever appointed to the Massachusetts State Art Commission, in 1930. The board stated that, “Fiske ranks with the foremost painters in the country. There are few artists who have been awarded more prizes than Miss Fiske in the entire country” — save maybe her male instructors, who had a few years on her and vastly more experience. They taught her all they knew, and she took the ball and ran with it.

The current exhibition of 66 of her pieces showcased at Portsmouth Historical Society spans the expressions of her work — landscapes, human figures, portraiture, still lifes and etchings. At 25, she enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and absorbed the REVIEW seven-year curriculum. In that time (the early 1900s), being an artist was one of the few respectable opportunities for an upper-middle class woman to earn a living.

She learned “the Boston style” from her teachers’ influence with an emphasis on light-filled rooms, finely detailed execution and expertly crafted portraits and figure paintings — elegant women posed, poised and gracious. To which she said, “Pshaw.” Well, not really. Rather, she owned her individualistic color sense, vivacity and original observation. So, what does that mean in her work? Examples would be she painted “unremarkable” characters with a dramatic light contrast. She painted “unseemly” objects into her work, such as telephone poles, incandescent light bulbs, rooms that had garments strewn about or a nude who exuded an aura as a subject versus an object. And she’d paint herself into many of her works to emphasize that she was a painter. Women artists of that time were under much more scrutiny than their male counterparts, and they were expected to conform to survive.

But that was a rule Fiske chose to ignore.

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