Elizabeth Bishop was a painter as well as a poet, and the paintings that she left to her partner Alice Methfessel, who died in 2009, are now being sold. I’ve been to see the paintings a couple of times: last winter in the office of James S. Jaffe Rare Books, and a few weeks ago in the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
The paintings are quiet. Some are domestic still lifes, including pansies in a wicker basket, a candelabra on a table, a tea set, and a doll-like lover asleep in bed. Others feature vernacular architecture: a Greenwich Village apartment building of ivy-covered brick, a wooden church in Key West, a county courthouse grand in the way of the nineteenth-century South. Most are in watercolor and gouache on vellum paper, whose delicate translucence no reproduction quite captures; lines are sometimes drawn in ink or pencil. Bishop didn’t have a steady or a precise hand, but her eye for color was fine, and she understood how to make the most of patterns, such as the radiations of a palm leaf, the stripes of a comforter cover, or the palings of a fence. She also had a Walker Evans–ish appreciation of the way that words, when they appear in the world as things, can seem both monumental and silly. The county courthouse is childishly labeled as such on a gable. On a street near a cemetery, each of five tombstones leaning against a shack reads “FOR SALE.”
The choice of subject and the modesty of style suggest that the paintings were for Bishop a personal matter. She usually signed them, when she signed them at all, with her initials or just her first name. Read More