A 1974 oil portrait of Isabel Bishop painted by Alice Neel. Neel was born in 1900 and Bishop in 1902. Whereas Neel has been canonized by the Contemporary Art world, Bishop is all but completely ignored. In almost half a century of looking at art in museums I’ve only once seen an Isabel Bishop painting on display and that was at the art museum in Colorado Springs, hardly a major stop on a list of must-see art museums. The reason Neel is esteemed and Bishop treated so shamefully is obvious. Neel paints in a recognizable Modern style (expressionist) whereas Bishop worked traditionally throughout her life, her paintings greatly influenced by Rubens. The extent to which this is true becomes more obvious when seeing the work in person. The painting I saw in Colorado Springs was a complete shock in that I’d seen Bishop’s work in reproduction but had no idea until seeing one of her paintings in person just how subtle, complex and brilliant it was.
To be clear, I’m not commenting at all on the relative merit of Neel and Bishop. I’m just pointing out the narrow ideological bias of contemporary art, where a painter of the highest achievement such as Bishop is ignored entirely whereas painters like Neel or O’Keefe are put on Olympian pedestals.
Bishop’s subjects were common working people, and her paintings capture life through the heart of the 20th century in New York City.
Isabel Bishop, Fourteenth Street, oil on masonite, ca. 1930