Jane Austen Illustrators: Isabel Bishop

Frontis illustration of Longbourn, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)
Longbourn (frontispiece) Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)

Isabel Bishop (1902-1988) was an American Social Realist Painter and Printmaker, whose contribution of illustrations to E. P. Dutton & Company’s 1976 edition of Pride and Prejudice are quite remarkable. She has been described as “the best female artist America produced aside from Mary Cassatt“, and like Cassatt, Bishop’s success lies in her extraordinary drawing ability.

Illustration of Mr. Bennet, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)         Illustration of Kitty and Lydia Bennet, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)

(left) “Now Kitty, you may cough as much as you chuse.” page 9
(right) “A walk to Meryton was necessary to amuse their morning hours.” page 31

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Isabel Bishop knew early in her life that she was destined to be an artist, and in 1918 moved to New York City at the tender age of sixteen to study illustration at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. In 1920 she changed her emphasis to painting and transferred to the Art Students League where she studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller. During her studies there, she developed her realist technique as well as her sensitive approach to light and shadow.

Illustration of Mr. Collins, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)         Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet and Caroline Bingley, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)

(left) “Mr. Collins was at leisure to look around him and admire.” page 81
(right) “So, Miss Eliza, I hear you are quite delighted with George Wickham!” page 101

Bishop often depicted moving figures and crowds in New York’s Union Square, which the studio that she leased from 1934 to 1978 overlooked. She is best known for her paintings and drawings of working women, hoboes, and students. Also an accomplished draughtsman, she often produced etchings based on her paintings. Her body of work illustrated the changing face of Union Square from the post-Depression milieu of the 1930s to the war protesters and students of the 1960s and ’70s.” Encyclopedia Britannica

Illustration of Col. Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Bennet, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)          Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)

(left) “They walked towards the Parsonage together.” page 193
(right) “Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself.” page 183

The choice of Isabel Bishop by publisher E.P. Dutton to illustrate their edition of Pride and Prejudice was the perfect blending of two acclaimed artists, novelists and painter, each renown for their sensitive and honest portrayal of women. The 31 black and white ink wash paintings relay Bishop’s command of technique and innovative style, and through her thoughtful and sympathetic consideration of the novel, she has aptly chosen significant scenes to illustrate, advancing the readers enjoyment and understanding of Jane Austen’s intensions.

Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)          Illustration of Mr. Darcy & Elizabeth Bennet, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)

(left) “The examination of all the letters which
 Jane had written to her.” page 199
(right) “Mr. Darcy…holding out a letter.” page 207

Not only is Isabel Bishop an incredibly talented artist, it appears from her inclusion of an afterword in this edition that she does not contain the giant ego that some artists of this caliber exhibit, and offers some kind words about a fellow artist’s talent and the acclaim of Pride and Prejudice.

Illustration of Kitty Wickham, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)          Illustration of Mr. Wickham and Elizabeth Bennet, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice (1976)

(left) “The door was thrown open, and she ran into the room.” page 333
(right) “She held out her hand; he kissed it with affectionate gallantry.” page 347

These drawings, for Pride and Prejudice, aim only to declare my own particular delight in the book – they are not trying the impossible task of embellishing an already complete and perfect work!

But my involvement in this undertaking has to do, also, with my feelings – wildly presumptuous – that in Jane Austen’s handling of the writer’s problem, certain minor factors relate (at the greatest possible distance) to my own efforts as an artist over fifty years. They are these: she doesn’t describe, in detail, environments; while she gives you the immediate social context of her characters, she is silent about the wider context (you don’t know the general economic situation, or that England was at war); she doesn’t allow you to care what people had on, or even about the details of their physiognomies! She governs the questions you are allowed to ask – she forbids any impulse to ask others! This sounds negative. (She herself said about her method that she “lop’t and crop’t”!) In the end what she presents to you as important convinces you utterly, in its completeness and humor, and its importance assumes monumentality.

In other words, she limits her esthetic problem and, in her case, gains great power through it.

What a lesson for visual art! In fact, the whole “modern” period of painting (since 1910) has been preoccupied with some aspect of this problem.

Isabel Bishop 1976

Illustration of Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)          Illustration of Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine, by Isabel Bishop, Pride and Prejudice, Dutton (1976)     

(left) “Her sister and Bingley standing together.” page 365
(right) “I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no
compliments to your mother.” page 379

Isabel Bishop’s renderings of Jane Austen’s characters and scenes in the E. P. Dutton edition of Pride and Prejudice are one of my personal favorites from my collection of illustrated editions of Jane Austen novels. Visualizing Austen is of course a personal commitment since she gave us so little in physical descriptions. I must agree with Isabel Bishop though, that by omitting the details, she gains the greater power.

Photo of Isabel Bishop sketching

Image of Isabel Bishop painting in her New York Studio (1976)

Further reading

Isabel Bishop: print maker of Union Square

Images courtesy of Dutton Books © 1976; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2008, Austenprose.com