ISABEL BISHOP 1902-1988
Laughing Head, 1938
Mixed media on panel, 13 x 12" (33.02 X 30.48 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 940-0-104
Born in Cincinnati and raised in Detroit, Isabel Bishop came to New York at age sixteen to study illustration at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. She soon transferred to the Art Students League, studying under Kenneth Hayes Miller and Guy P6ne du Bois, and, in 1934, she leased a studio on Union Square where she worked for the remainder of her career. Sometimes grouped with Miller and Reginald Marsh as the Fourteenth Street School, at other times associated with artists like Edward Hopper and Raphael and Moses Soyer, Bishop remains America's most distinctive depicter and visual poet of urban working women.
Isabel Bishop has been described by the painter R. B. Kitaj as "the best female artist America produced (aside from Cassatt)." Like Mary Cassatt, Bishop's greatest creative strength was an extraordinary drawing ability. Though successfully harmonized, her color is characteristically muted and subordinate to effects of luminosity, expressed in her later work as a kind of flickering syncopation suggesting the complex motion of the city. Bishop stated that her earlier work was about the capacity for movement, while her later works portrayed movement itself.
Among Bishop's greatest inspirations were the Baroque painters of the seventeenth century, and some of her early works involve a close study of extreme and unflattering facial expressions in the tradition of the youthful Rembrandt van Rijn's self-portrait etchings.3 In the 1930s and 1940s, Bishop drew, painted, and etched a series of close-ups which capture the female face in unexpected poses: flashing perfect teeth while applying lipstick, tightening a cheek to touch up a blemish, opening a mouth wide to bite a hot dog, or grimacing while reaching deep to test an afflicted tooth. However, what especially distinguished Bishop's work from the Baroque masters is the fact that her principal subject matter was always women. Her individual heads, her nudes and especially her interacting female couples sound a rare and distinctive modern note in both American and European art.
In the original drawn study for this painting, five different heads appear. Two incline to the right and three others, one of which is disposed quite similarly to the painting, lean more gradually to the left. The Butler Institute also owns a print of the same subject, which offers an interesting comparison. Extending the vertical length of the composition, the etching loses the painting's four-square focus. At the same time, the normal compositional reversal of the print implies a glance directed more pointedly outward than the gaze in the painting, whose more complex contrapposto and wistful, equivocal smile suggest greater inward reflection.
Within the nearly-square boundary of the painting, Bishop gave her Laughing Head the casually dominant shape of a Venetian nobleman, and tilted her subject's face into a three-quarter pose evoking the dynamism of a Peter Paul Rubens sketch, whose blond tonalities her technique also echoes. Laughing Head is among the earliest of Bishop's expressive faces, though the expression it renders is one of the most elusive and complex she ever undertook. From archaic korai to the Mona Lisa, the female smile has been a male metaphor for mystery, seduction, and alarming secrets. Bishop's image has replaced the sinister smirk of the fatal woman or the sensual come-hither of the pin-up model and odalisque with the more authentic, less dramatic miracle of daily laughter: the face of an ordinary, plump woman, spontaneously illuminated by a smile.