Her Art Once Graced Homes Across the U.S.

March 15, 2023

By Bonnie Eissner

An Art History professor explores the remarkable life and art of nature-painter Fidelia Bridges.

Fidelia Bridges, On the Beach, 1879, chromolithograph, L. Prang & Co., 11 5/8 x 7 in., Collection of Max and Pamela Berry
Fidelia Bridges, "On the Beach," 1879, chromolithograph, L. Prang & Co., 11 5/8 x 7 in., Collection of Max and Pamela Berry

Fidelia Bridges, whose intricate depictions of flowers and birds graced mantels in homes across the country, was one of the most successful and popular women artists in the late 19th century. But today she is hardly a household name.  

Now, with a richly illustrated biography, Fidelia Bridges: Nature Into Art, Graduate Center Professor Katherine Manthorne (Art History) seeks to bring her out from the shadows.  

Manthorne recently spoke to us about her book, Bridges’ importance as a watercolorist, and the paths she carved through her single-minded pursuit of a life as an artist.

 "Fidelia Bridges: Nature Into Art" book by Professor Katherine Manthorne was published in February 2023.
"Fidelia Bridges: Nature Into Art" by Professor Katherine Manthorne was published in February 2023.

GC: What is so special about Fidelia Bridges’ art? What makes it stand apart?

Manthorne: One of the things one of the things that people would often say was that they sensed that she had a special bond with nature. One critic said her pictures look like a little bird whispered in her ear and told her its secrets; another person called her the voice of nature. And I think that's partly because the work was very detailed. You can appreciate her fine brushwork and the way she integrated the birds with the with the wildflowers and other things. But also, the works were smaller in scale, as watercolors often are. So people would have to get up close to them. And they would develop this intimate connection.

After the Civil War, I think people wanted work that was more restful and brought them back to nature as opposed to some more bombastic things, so she was at the right place at the right time.

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GC: Did Fidelia Bridges have a lasting impact on the art world?

Manthorne: I do think she inspired younger women, especially at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she had taken classes with William Trost Richards. That's a place that encouraged a lot of women artists.

But I think also she helped to popularize watercolor. At that time, watercolor was thought of as just something that lady amateurs would do at home. It’s often said that Winslow Homer was the one who popularized watercolor. Of course, he did. He was a beautiful watercolorist, and his works started to help make the market for them. But Bridges was right there with him. In the book, I mentioned a review by Henry James — in his early days, he was writing art reviews — and he compares Homer and Bridges, and he likes Bridges. So I think she really did help to popularize the watercolor medium and bring it away from just something that nice ladies did at home.

Fidelia Bridges, April, from The Twelve Months, published 1876, chromolithograph, L. Prang & Co., 12 3/5 x 9 4/5 in, Private collection
Fidelia Bridges, April, from The Twelve Months, published 1876, chromolithograph, L. Prang & Co., 12 3/5 x 9 4/5 in, Private collection

GC: She had a long career. She emerged right after the Civil War and painted into the early 20th century. Did she evolve her art very much over her career?

Manthorne: One of the things about her that I admire is that she was very nimble. At first, she was painting these watercolors and showing them at fine art exhibitions and doing very well. But as that petered out, and the art world changed in the 1880s, she was very adaptable. She was working with Louis Prang, who was creating these reproductions, these multiples. Some artists poo pooed that. They thought that that was selling out, that you shouldn't do that, but she worked with him. So her work is being hung in far more places than that of some of her more popular, “blue chip” male colleagues, because they're more affordable. They're hanging in middle-class homes all over.

Louis Prang is also called the father of the American Christmas card, but it was really her designs that were the most popular ones. And people would keep these cards and put them on their mantel; they just loved her.

GC: She was very deliberate in her in her pursuit of a career as an artist, which was unusual for a woman at the time. What were some of her bold choices in doing that?

Manthorne: Fidelia basically dedicates herself to her art. I think a lot of her male contemporaries talk about this. If you read Henry James, he's always pondering, How do you combine a personal life with the life of the artist? He chose, obviously, to remain a bachelor, and she makes that same decision. When she's in art school, she's writing to her to her friends and saying, I have to give up so much right now, I can't be interacting with you. I can't even come home for Christmas, but I have to do this because I feel like this is my calling. It wasn't quite religious, but it was a very serious commitment that she was making.

And all through her life, somebody would write to her, and ask, Do you want to come here and do this? And she’d say, No, I can't, I work eight to 10 hours a day, and I can't spare the time right now.

GC: What prejudices did she face as a woman artist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

Manthorne: There's just no question that the New York art world at that time was extremely male forward. When she was nominated to the National Academy of Design, there was only one other living woman artist who was a member. And I inserted into the book that when she died in 1923, one of her artist colleagues read these comments into the minutes of the National Academy, and basically, he called her a New England spinster. He said, I know that she did more, but I can't help thinking of her that way. And that's after she exhibited at that organization for 50 years. She was probably more successful than most of her male colleagues in terms of having visibility and having her work out there. But, still, that's how she's going to be remembered in the minutes of the National Academy of Design. It was a discouraging moment.

Oliver Ingraham Lay, Portrait of Fidelia Bridges, c.1877, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 38 7/8 x 28 1/8 in, oval, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Oliver Ingraham Lay, Portrait of Fidelia Bridgesc.1877, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 38 7/8 x 28 1/8 in, oval, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

GC: Why isn't she better known today?

Manthorne: I know, it's so frustrating. I mean Mark Twain bought her work. She knew all sorts of celebrity characters. But I think part of the problem is that her work is in watercolor. So even though almost any museum in the U.S. that has a collection of American art has works by her, they can't hang them up for very long because the watercolors are light-sensitive and delicate.

I think also there's a little bit of a prejudice against people who worked like she did in greeting cards. There's a little bit of a bias against that diversification, that crossing the line between being a fine artist and being a commercial artist. Not everybody was born with a silver spoon in their mouths. She had to do what she had to do to survive, but at the same time, making as few compromises as possible with her art.

GC: What advice do you have for people who are interested in writing artist biographies?

Manthorne: My advice would be to find what interests you about the person and try to get your readers interested in that as well and to connect them with broader developments, even celebrities. Fidelia was friendly with Mark Twain and at one point when her sister died and she wanted a break from her art, she worked as a governess for Mark Twain's daughters. That brings another dimension into it, I think, that people get to see these connections.

See coverage of Fidelia Bridges: Nature Into Art in the Marblehead Current.

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