Thursday, May 28, 2015

Fidelia Bridges

Fidelity Bridges, Milkweeds, 1876. Watercolor and gouache on paper

Fidelia Bridges (1834 - 1923) was known for her meticulous botanical studies, many of which were painted outdoors in nature.

Both of her parents died when she was in her teens. She never married, but had a small circle of friends, including Mark Twain, for whom she served for a time as a governess of his daughters. 

She lived by herself in a home in Canaan, Connecticut, overlooking a stream and a flower garden filled with birds and butterflies. A writer of the time described her this way:

"She soon became a familiar village figure, tall, elegant, beautiful even in her sixties, her hair swept back, her attire always formal, even when sketching in the fields or riding her bicycle through town. Her life was quiet and un-ostentatious, her friends unmarried ladies of refinement and of literary and artistic task who she joined for woodland picnics and afternoon teas."

Fidelia Bridges, Calla Lily, 1875
She was inspired by reading John Ruskin's Modern Painters, which preached truth to nature. She found her way to study under William Trost Richards, who became a lifelong mentor. Her early studies in watercolor and gouache, such as this one of a calla lily, show a patient and observant eye. 

Bridges was one of only seven women who became members of the American Watercolor Society in the 19th century. She worked for the Prang company in her later career, and her work was often reproduced on greeting cards.


Steve said...

Thanks for introducing us to this artist. Looking at her works through the Wikipedia link, I was particularly taken with her 1875 painting, Bird's Nest in Cattails -- now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. It was probably a study; the background is left undeveloped. The painting has energy, life, and freshness.

Elisabeth said...

I came across her not too long ago in the New Britain Museum of American Art in CT. They have some of her oils in the permanent collection.

ThomHardy said...

Thank you. I was not aware of her.

Melle Ferre said...

Thank you for another introduction to an inspiring artist.

Susan Krzywicki said...

Aha! My two loves come together: art and plants. This woman's milkweed work shows the butterfly/flower connection that native plant enthusiasts are helping people to re-discover: if we want the beneficial wildlife (birds, bees and butterflies, for example) we must grow the locally native species that allow them their natural habitats.

Thank you!

Tom Hart said...

This is a great companion post the recent one on William Trost Richards. Thinking of the goal these two strove for (and mostly succeeded in attaining) - i.e. "truth in nature", I can't help but wonder about the decisions that were made during the executions of these pieces. That is, what about the images we see was left out or modified? Certainly somewhere a leave fell, or the wind blew and, as we know for sure, the lighting changed. Without being able to look over their shoulders or asking them, we'll never know for sure what strictly speaking was not true to nature. And frankly I'm not sure what my point is, except to say that contemplating "truth in nature" paintings always makes me wonder about such things.

Sesco said...

Tom, I enjoyed your post. I am not certain why the word 'truth' is bandied about so much in relation to art. Is 'Truth' the krypton of 'Style' or 'Imagination"? Because an artist is inexperienced and their art is poor in relation to a photograph, is this untruth, less truthful, false effort, false execution? Is Dinotopia untruthful? Does intent play any role in Truth? If five en plein air painters attempt to paint the same scene, will there be one painting that is more truthful than another? In this case, it would seem that there are varying degrees of skill, in seeing and applying paint, but I don't understand where truth comes into play.

Tom Hart said...

Thanks, Sesco. You've actually broadened my point and given me food for thought. As I understand your post, you are approaching the question of truth more philosophically than I was. But yours is an interesting and worthy line of inquiry. I was focused more on the thought process of the painter at the moment of execution: what exactly is left out or changed, and why? (That, of course, assumes that something is left out or changed intentionally - or that something like changing light is coped with.) Thanks for your perspective!

James Gurney said...

Tom and Sesco, you both raise some wonderful questions about "truth to nature." I suppose the term is a sort of shorthand for what these artists were after. It's interesting to read both Ruskin and A.B. Durand on these points. Durand says that an exact reproduction of nature's infinite detail is impossible — one can't capture every leaf, so he talks about "representing" the patterns of growth and the botanical detail in the terms possible in paint. Durand also speaks in spiritual terms, and regards a nature study as almost like a page from a Divine book, or what he called a "transcript of Nature."

From a philosophical point of view, Durand was a Transcendentalist or a Platonic idealist, so his idea was that truth is something beyond the veil of appearances, more what we would think of as the perfect type of a given plant or cloud or rock formation. It's not something you can entirely see on your retinas. Illustrations for bird books are a modern form of this kind of idealism. Achieving that sort of truth is quite different what we would think of as photographic copying, and I think trying to recapture the mindset at its philosophical foundations is the first step to understanding these early works, much less trying to replicate them.

Unknown said...

I really appreciate all these wonderful thoughts. I have wondered about the intersection/link between the "Naturalist" and the "Artist" in men such as Audubon and Darwin (and we can put Fidelia Bridges in this category?) that was much more predominant in earlier eras. Audubon's birds are incredibly detailed life-like studies and I think express the "truth to nature" as expressed by both Druand AND Ruskin, yet he painted most (if not all?) of his paintings from dead specimens. These naturalists/artists were as mesmerized by the "truth of rational thinking and science" as "truth to nature". And that I see as a sort of tension. I would hypothesize that this is why Darwin abandoned his faith in later years - that the internal tension was too great and he opted for pure observable science. I like the thought that the two can co-exist albiet always with some tension - there is the observable natural history of science and the hidden truth of philosophy/spirituality - something beyond what can be seen and observed.

I would go so far to say that the greatest Masters where the spark of life is so obvious in their works are drawing from both of these great "truths" internally. I would also posit that some of the work we see today where the artist copies a photograph can look dead, or maybe better to say, not animated with life's spirit. I have particularly noticed this in some contemporary wildlife art where the animals are well rendered and in their natural habitats but somehow not animated with life. Could this stem from the modern sensibility that what you can see "on the retina" or with the camera represents the totality of the truth (i.e. scientifically observable facts)? It doesn't seem quite so obvious with paintings of people, but is that because there is an unshakeable, innate awe of the human essence (beyond what can be seen) that almost every person/artist has even if on a subconscious level?

Sorry to go on, but this is fascinating to me and is part of the philosophical underpinnings in newer paintings that I am working on.

Sesco said...

I once thought about the problem of luminosity, especially as it relates to the Sun, its corona, the depth of the blue of sky, etc. or of the Moon on a clear Winter's night, how to paint a star nearby, etc. It didn't take me long to understand that I could never, EVER, on a 2D substrate, with paint of any degree of opaqueness, get to the 'Truth' of what I was seeing. The very nature of the substrate and the medium prevent me from stating the 'truth'.

I wonder if what we mean in these instances is not 'accuracy' as opposed to 'truth'.

Philosophical 'Truth' in art also does not appear to have a place given extreme accuracy does not necessarily produce, at times, the essence, or the animation, of life, just as I cannot produce the luminosity of the sky, the Sun, or the Moon, that I witness with my eyes, with titanium white and Cerulean Blue no matter if I sit outside en plein air and attempt a new effort every day for ten years.

To me the Truth is the totality of the imaginings of all artists pouring out like a volcano. The Truth is the simple act of setting up an easel in humility with a quiet mind to paint in a subjective manner the world one sees, or the worlds one invents. Perhaps the Truth is a verb, and manifests only when an artist feels the joy of applying a colorful paint to a blank substrate. Accuracy is one thing, imagination and play are another. I'm not sure Truth is relevant except in Play.

VickiRossArt said...

Truth or not, I was stunned by the Calla Lily, James! It appears to be on a beige paper that had a khaki matte colored background painted. Anyone know of her processes?