American master

Seacoast rediscovering the star power of Impressionist painter Gertrude Fiske

NH Weekend Editor
April 04. 2018 1:21PM
Adam Brooks, director of exhibitions and programming for Portsmouth Historical Society and Discover Portsmouth, and Lainey McCartney, who curated the upcoming Gertrude Fiske exhibition and is curatorial associate of exhibitions and programing for the historical society, hold up one of the Fiske masterpieces, “The Geranium” (circa 1924). 

Gertrude Fiske was an extremely succesful painter in the first quarter of the 20th century. She was particularly known for her captivating portraits, including as models immigrants and the elderly, as well as younger sitters.
If you go...
WHAT: An “Unprecedented Year of Women's Art” at the Portsmouth Historical Society at Discover Portsmouth, 10 Middle St., and the John Paul Jones House Museum, 43 Middle St. Exhibitions in 2018 will include:

• “Gertrude Fiske: American Master,” opening Friday and running through Sept. 30, in the Academy Gallery at Discover Portsmouth (with members' opening gala from 5 to 7:30 p.m. today);

• Companion exhibits include “Sisters of the Brush and Palette” in the special events gallery and “Seacoast Masters Today” in the balcony gallery at Discover Portsmouth;

• “Of Family & Memory: Rose Labrie, New Hampshire's 'Primitive Painter,'” Oct. 29 to Dec. 23 in the balcony gallery at Discover Portsmouth;

• “Overlooked and Undervalued: Three hundred Years of Women's Art from the Seacoast” at the 1781 John Paul Jones House Museum, May 28 through Oct. 8.

Mistaken identities, a treasure trove of art and painstaking restorations have swelled a second wave of Impressionism — and intrigue — in downtown Portsmouth.

“Gertrude Fiske: American Master,” which opens to the public Friday in the Portsmouth Historical Society galleries of the Discover Portsmouth welcome center and museum, is an engaging look at a woman famed for painting both inside and outside the lines.

“She was a star,” said Adam Brooks, director of exhibitions for the historical society. “She had an ability to find beauty in lots of areas that other people didn’t necessary look toward. She could and did capture that.”

The showcase of works by Fiske (1879-1961) includes more than 60 paintings and a handful of etchings, some never before seen publicly. Four pieces are on loan from the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, which had planned to feature them in its own spring exhibit but changed its mind when it learned that Discover Portsmouth and the John Paul Jones House Museum would house an expansive five-tiered Seacoast project to highlight an “Unprecedented Year of Women’s Art” in 2018.

“Aren’t we lucky? For a little institute like this to provide this free to the public?,” said a smiling Lainey McCartney, who curated the central Fiske exhibition.

The showcase comes two years after Discover Portsmouth unveiled “Illuminating Tarbell: Life and Art on the Piscataqua,” a well-received retrospective of work by Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938), a pioneer of the what is called the Boston School of Painting. Artist and conservator Alastair Dacey, who had curated a companion exhibit called “Legacy in Action,” shared back then with the Union Leader a sense of history lost and found — how he came to unexpectedly live in one of several units in what was once Tarbell’s New Castle home, and how that Greek Revival structure was reduced to ash just weeks before the exhibits he helped put together opened in March 2016.

Good timing

The Fiske exhibition, too, brings its own uncanny behind-the-scene stories and serendipitous moments, including why the artist faded from the art world and why folks feel now is the perfect time for her prescient voice to be heard once again.

On a recent walkthrough of the galleries at Discover Portsmouth, there was an air of awe around Brooks and McCartney as they meandered past paintings already hung and others leaning against the wall, awaiting placement. Their enthusiasm was contagious as they talked about the thrill of unpacking masterpieces one by one from wooden packing crates in recent days.

“You have no idea. I still have goosebumps,” McCartney said with a laugh, her eyes widening. “We had access to her studio and her home and her barn and just found work that eyes really hadn’t seen yet or that had been seen but gone into total disrepair that we brought back to life.”

She paused before a propped-up portrait of a woman in a white dress and bonnet.

“It was this painting, right here,” McCartney said of what initially sparked her interest in Fiske. She had gone to the York Public Library in Maine to view an exhibition featuring paintings by female artists, and found herself staring up in confusion at a piece above a mantel.

“I walked in, and I knew I was going to see women’s art, so I thought, ‘Well, how the heck did a Tarbell get into the show? And then I saw (the artist’s name.) Gertrude Fiske? Who is this Gertrude Fiske (who’s) not on my radar anywhere?” McCartney said.

She reached out to Richard Candee, an area historian and art collector whom she calls the backbone of the Portsmouth Historical Society, and he did some investigating.

Born in Weston, Mass., Fiske studied with Tarbell in Boston, and spent summers taking classes from Charles Woodbury in Ogunquit, Maine, where she was part of a community of artists known as the Pine Hill Girls.

“He said, ‘You know, there’s a good amount of work locally ... we could put a show together, and I think you’re going to curate it,” McCartney recalled.

And there were amazing resources along the way, from the family-preserved artist studio that looked as if Fiske had just put down her paint brush and palette to take a little break but never came back, to the expertise of Jeremy Fogg of Anthony Painting Conservation in York, who curated the Tarbell exhibition and wound up restoring about two dozen pieces for the Fiske showcase.

“Some only needed minor work to tighten the canvas or a very light cleaning or tuning of some of the older restoration colors, while others needed a bit more work,” Fogg said. “Some of the pieces were in amazing condition but had simply never been cleaned. Those are sort of works that are really enjoyable to work on.”

But a canvas called “The Brethren” had weathered particularly tough times.

“It was ripped, it was filthy and it was huge,” McCartney said of the imposing piece featuring two men sitting side by side.

“I imagine the painting coming down from a major exhibition after receiving all sorts of praise and it being put away one day and then not again seeing the light of day for 80 years,” Fogg said. “It was dented and slightly torn, but it was a massive piece that had never been cleaned or restored.

“It had been separated from its amazing original Walfred Thulin frame, which we later found and reunited with the piece,” he said. “Both required conservation. The frame had been worm eaten (by powder post beetles) on one side and was extremely fragile. It went to Tuveson Studios (in Rollinsford) for repair, and the large canvas came to our conservation studio for repair. To relax the large dent and stabilize the tear took about two weeks, and the cleaning and painting took about four to five weeks to complete.”

It’s a fitting return for an artist whose popularity in the first quarter of the 20th century can still be traced everywhere from her history-loving family to scores of old newspaper clippings and documents.

“Paintings always get a tag on the back, a sticker as to where they showed, where they hung. It’s unbelievable where these paintings have been. Oh, my goodness, you wouldn’t believe it. All the important places in the 1910s and the ‘20s and ‘30s — all the places you’d want to be hanging was where she was hanging,” McCartney said of Fiske’s work.

“This was an award-winning painting over and over,” Brooks said of “The Brethren.”

Living art

Fiske’s especially was influenced by Woodbury (1864-1940), a teacher who famously urged his students to paint in “verbs,” to give movement to life on a canvas.

“That really freed her hand and her mind to follow her brush,” McCartney said.

It’s seen in her deeper hues and in how she included elements others painters of the time felt wasn’t attractive, such as elderly people (such as “Grandmother”) to signs of the industrial age (such as “Old Portsmouth Burying Ground,” which includes two large, red tanks called gasometers, used to feed gas into town for lighting.)

“Much of the Boston School was looking back at Colonial Revival, and Sheafe warehouse would have been a great thing to paint, but definitely the light post would have been removed, because it negatively impacted our colonial history,” Brooks said .

“Fiske was all in for modernity,” McCartney said of some of the more gritty aspects of life. “She certainly didn’t shy away from it. A lot of her contemporaries thought that painting the more genteel and kind of proper society paintings was more in vogue.”

Fiske’s work, including her engaging portraiture, hints at the artist’s spirit. It’s in the endearing way her dogs (a succession of white bull terriers, all named Boy) pop up on so many canvases, or how her sitters for character studies represent the melting pot the Americas were becoming, or how she often painted herself into her work with a blurred or not fully articulated face, as if to say it wasn’t important how she looked, just that she was present and doing her thing.

“It was her statement: ‘This is what I do. I am an artist, and I take if very seriously, I’m living it. I’m not a beauty. I’m not saying I’m this ravishing thing. I am an artist and this is my statement,’” McCartney said.

Two Fiske pieces McCartney finds particularly striking are etchings called “Bathers on a Dune” and “Bathers,” which graphic designer Susan Kree Hamilton of Phineas Press in Portsmouth chose to use to bookend the exhibition catalog.

“As you open up the flap of the catalog, (Hamilton) has used the one of three of the Pine Hill Girls — her group — up in Ogunquit. They’re kind of on a bluff, and they have just come out of the water. You can see that they’re drenched, and their hair is blowing in the wind. They’re just women having fun, playing. I love that moment,” she said.

“It was this fabulous community of women who painted together and hung out together and had fun in the water together,” McCartney said. “They all had their houses, they painted with Woodbury, two by two or three by three or five by five on the bluff over the Marginal Way.”

“Bold, certainly is a phrase I would agree with,” Fogg said of Fiske’s painting style. “I enjoy seeing a clear progression in her work and style. One can see the clear influences by artists like Tarbell and Woodbury and later where she breaks away and steps forward with her own unique ideas in color and composition.

“One technique I became fascinated by was how at times she would take what was likely a ‘finished’ painting, and while in the frame she would gently wash or glaze out parts of the background or details to soften them.”

Fiske had to contend not only with what was trending in the art world but what was deemed acceptable.

“There were really prescribed parameters for women painters,” McCartney said. “They had just freshly been allowed into the fine arts. You were allowed, but you really had to play within the rules.

““There’s so many fabulous women that somehow got just left by the wayside,” McCartney said. “So when there was a revival and people started liking Impressionism again, somehow (Fiske) got lost.”

Fiske grew up in a well-educated and well-off family.

“You think of the environment she was born into .... you know there was conversation about what was going on in the bigger world,” McCartney said.

World War I had brought about a certain sense of freedom for women who left domestic duties at home to fill jobs left open by men fighting on the front lines, and as such, there wasn’t such intense pressure to marry. Still, in Fiske’s time, “women weren’t considered physically or mentally fit enough to be fine artists, especially en plein air, to be painting outside,” McCartney said.

The exhibition also suggests parallels between Fiske’s day and modern times, in terms of hot-button issues of women’s rights and immigration — from yesteryear’s Suffragette movement and a backlash against immigrants to today’s #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and debate over immigration laws and border walls.

“It’s providential,” McCartney said. “None of us knew the big tide change was going to happen. We couldn’t have anticipated it.”

“We have taken a show that is a wonderful response to what is happening socially and tried to build on that with a fuller program and other exhibitions related to the same theme,” Brooks added.

“We are still fighting the good fight, and it pains me,” McCartney added. “It makes me so sad that 100 years later, we’re really sill fighting this? Like, I can’t believe it! I’m just hoping somehow this can be some kind of message that we’re really all on the same page. Just, you know .... stop the shenanigans,” she whispers and then laughs.

“Art makes people stop and think,” she said with a smile.

ArtsPortsmouthPhoto Feature

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