Treasures from the Vault: Janet Fish

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

Janet Fish has forged her own path as an artist in the crowded 20th century of art history. She came from a family of artists – her grandfather was American Impressionist painter Clark Voorhees, her mother a sculptor, and her sister a photographer – so she knew quite early that she wanted to be an artist, too. While she initially studied sculpture and ceramics, in graduate school she found her true passion: painting. However, Fish’s early years as an artist weren’t easy for her. She came onto the art scene in the late 1960s, a time when Abstract Expressionism was all the rage. But she didn’t care for the style. Fish found it too unfeeling and impersonal, and she herself was more drawn to realism. In a decision that shocked many of her artist friends and critics, Fish began painting still lives.

Fish’s decision to focus on still life painting was an interesting one. For centuries there has been a hierarchy of subject matter in art – histories or dramas have been the most highly regarded, followed by portraiture, and then the lowly still life. This latter genre was often viewed as quaint and trite, something light and palatable that female painting hobbyists could do in their spare time when not taking care of the home or their children. While some artists have attempted to raise the status of still lives through history – 17th and 18th century Spanish and Flemish still life painters, for example, whose paintings rival photography in their level of detail and perfection – the genre failed to ever move up the ladder. Fish likely knew that she was tackling an almost impossible subject, but it’s possible that that’s what drew her to it: in a modern world with an abundance of abstract painters, still life painting was a true challenge that she could make her own.

The paintings that Fish creates are expressions of her independent spirit. They’re bright and bold, truly a feast for the eyes. She tackles “forbidden subjects” in art – fruit wrapped in cellophane, candy wrapped in gaudy plastic wrappers, glass bottles and glasses reflecting a litany of colors. Morning is an example of the latter. Fish has gathered an assortment of glasses and a decanter in the center of a table, and at first glance, that’s all this painting is–glasses on a table. Are they left over from a party? Perhaps. We see an empty decanter in the background.

Janet Fish's oil painting is a still life of glasses, reflected on the glass table, with a cityscape in the background. Some of the glasses are half filled with water, and the play of reflection makes it an interesting and detailed work.
Janet Fish, American, b.1938. Morning. Oil on canvas, 1978. Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Arts United Renaissance Campaign, 1991.09. Used with permission from: © 2018 Janet Fish/ Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

However, as you take time to truly look at Morning, you notice much more. Each glass has varying amounts of water in them, and this allows Fish to capture all of the different ways that morning sunlight fractures and plays as it peeks through the window behind the table. She’s captured the colors of a perfect sunrise in the facets of the glass – we see gold, violet, lavender, pale blue, and even pink dancing in the glasses. We know what this kind of morning feels like. It’s peaceful and relaxing, promising a tranquil day following a raucous night of fun. But it’s not just the morning light that Fish shows in the glass. She’s also included bits of the cityscape through the window behind our glass candy land. There’s green in some of the glasses, which is most likely from trees just beyond our view. One of the most fun views that Fish has included is a miniature version of the buildings we see only portions of – in the center glass she has included the entirety of the window view, but upside down.

While we’re drawn to Morning at first by the colors, it’s Fish’s inclusion of reflections that shows her mastery of still life. We can see that when she entered into this humble genre it was with a determination to do so in a manner that wouldn’t be ignored. Though it’s true that Fish paints what’s in front of her, like traditional still life painters, she brings palpable energy and whimsy to her paintings. By focusing on subjects that have reflective surfaces Fish is able to include enough of the world just outside the picture plane to pique our interest. Viewers become invested in the world that she’s created.

Morning was part of a 1970 solo exhibition in New York, and Fish has stuck with this style over the last 40 years. In doing so she has revolutionized the still life genre, elevating everyday objects like glasses, candy, produce, and beer cans to fine art. Art critic Vincent Katz captured the impact that Fish had on still life painting when he said that her career “can be summed up as the revitalization of the still life genre, no mean feat when one considers that still life has been considered the lowest type of objective painting.” By sticking to her guns and painting what she was passionate about, Fish was one of the pre-eminent artists in the 1970s and ‘80s – another accomplishment that few women can claim.

Image of Morning by Janet Fish used with permission by VAGA at ARS. Reproduction, including downloading of Janet Fish works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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