Janet Fish: A Modern-Day Master of Still Life

Perhaps growing up in sun-kissed tropical Bermuda amid the canvases of her grandfather—the noted American Impressionist Clark Vorhees—is what fueled Janet Fish’s passion for painting how the eye captures energy and light. Hence her motto: Painting is an act of gesture and color. Fish has devoted her artistic career to fulfilling this tenet: Her pictures are lush and textural, teeming with organic brushstrokes and lusty color. To describe her work in terms of art history, imagine a 17th-century Dutch genre sensibility combined with Abstract Expressionist brushwork, flickering impressionist light and a sensual palette. You might also think of her work as the link between the legacies of American Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.

Considered by many in the art world to be the greatest living still-life painter, Fish divides her time between Manhattan and Vermont, recording light sensations both in her studio and outdoors. “I’m not looking for luminosity per se but for a subject that provides an opportunity for overall activity, such as light falling through leaves,” she says. “But light isn’t the only source of this activity. I can find it, for instance, in the texture of grass or the pattern of cloth.”

Still life is her primary, but not only, subject. She feels it’s the most conceptual of the representational ways of working: It can allow one the freedom to be more inventive. “Still life objects have less power than a face, which as an image can blind you,” Fish says. “It’s most clearly about formal problems, ideas and composition. And still lifes don’t talk back.”

Fish introduces both natural and artificial elements into her large-scale watercolor still lifes (average dimensions are 30×23). She often presents traditionally laden tables, where minimal arrangements give way to the heady imagery of ripened fruit, confections and masses of blossoms and buds. But she also depicts more novel subjects—intricately designed textiles, carnival-inspired images and toys, crystal and cut-glass vases and bowls—that mirror repeating undulating reflections and so on.

Working From Life
Years of working almost exclusively from life instead of photographs is the framework behind Fish’s creative process. “There are no easy solutions,” she says. “When copying a photograph, all the color and composition decisions have been made for you. You see differently than a camera. You can be more flexible and change the picture in a blink of an eye. Just as an actor can say the same line 100 ways, so can the artist working from life.”

She continues, “It’s how you accent certain elements—just by letting a size or color dominate changes the meaning of a painting. You are more flexible (than a photo). I set up a situation and the painting makes its own demands.”

Janet Fish was born in Boston, Massachusetts, into an artistic milieu. Both her mother and uncle were sculptors, and her father taught art history. But Fish’s more obvious connection to an artistic heritage can be traced to a personal relationship with the paintings of her grandfather, noted American Impressionist Clark Vorhees, whom she never knew.

After graduating from Smith College, Fish attended a summer session at the famous Skowhegon School of Art, and then went on to Yale, where she was taught the rudiments of Abstract Expressionism. Eventually, Fish rejected Abstract Expressionism and formulated a signature style, in which she portrays her own perceptions of the world. Fish’s complete ouevre, which also includes oils, pastels and prints (aquatint and woodcut), makes it clear that her passion for making art doesn’t end with watercolor. “I’m really a painter,” Fish says, “not a watercolorist, although watercolor has its own physicality.”

Fish’s paintings can be found in the permanent collections of more than 20 major museums nationwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Her work has been the subject of more than 100 solo shows, and many more group exhibitions.

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