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Three on a Bench

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Three on a Bench

Artist: Isabel Bishop (American, 1902 - 1988)

Date: c. 1948
Medium: Pen and black-ink line and wash, with graphite, on cream-colored, medium-weight wove paper
Overall: 11 3/16 × 9 5/8in. (28.4 × 24.4cm)
Inscribed: Recto, left center (graphite): "Isabel Bishop"; verso, lower left (graphite): "11² x 13(4)"; lower right (graphite): "4 / 4 / 5" (on threesides of a rectangle) Verso: on verso: 'Figures at a Drinking Fountain' 77.16b
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 77.16.a
Text Entries

Drawing is the foundation of Isabel Bishop’s art. For every painting she completed, she wrestled with compositional questions through innumerable sketches and etchings. Her process began with quick, gestural notations of people she observed, often in Union Square, New York, where she had a studio for more than fifty years. Three on a Bench is such a sketch. Bishop later altered and refined the drawing into two painted versions entitled Double Date Delayed, the first of which is in the MWPI collection.(1)

The MWPI sheet is irregularly cut and contains a number of drawings and notes. On the recto, Bishop captures the poses of seated figures with a minimum of pen marks that she enhances with a light ink wash. In the lower and left margins, she also uses the wash to toy with variations on poses. In the central drawing, a man sits to the right of two women. His elbow rests on his knee, and he holds his chin in his hand. At left, Bishop shows him alone with ankles crossed and arms folded on knees. In the primary image the woman seated in the center of the three figures leans toward her female companion, whose arms and hands Bishop reworked several times in pen. In the lower margin, the two are shown again, but now the woman on the left leans as if whispering in her friend’s ear. Erased and redrawn several times, the pencil frame around the center sketch demonstrates Bishop’s conceptualization of the drawing as a formal composition.

In translating drawing into painting, Bishop manipulated the figures’ placement and attitudes to create a slightly tense, poignant narrative out of the mundane moment of relaxation that she caught in her sketchbook. The three figures whom Bishop sketched resting on a park bench originally may have been in two groups; the man could have been a stranger to the women. In both versions of Double Date Delayed, however, Bishop places the man in between the two women, who ignore him and talk to each other around him. Whether the three figures are strangers or friends, though, the women share a camaraderie that does not include the man. Examining the activity of women in Bishop’s paintings, Ellen Wiley Todd has found that their solidarity helps to place Bishop’s women outside the gaze of the male spectator: “Bishop’s paintings construct a larger space for the feminine viewer, producing in turn a greater exclusion of the male.”(2)

On the verso of Three on a Bench, Bishop recorded her observations of people drinking at a public water fountain. She sketched the subject endlessly and noted the variety of poses people struck: “You know, most people lift one leg when they drink. Some put their hands behind them. Others embrace the bowl. But it’s so quick and nice—like birds, they drink and fly away—and I have a devil of a time. You could easily pose a person there, of course, but that wouldn’t be it. I struggle for months and months to make it look as momentary as it is.”(3)


1. Reproduced in Masterworks of American Art from the Munson- Williams-Proctor Institute (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, 1989), 177. The second version, in a private collection on the West Coast, is reproduced in black and white in Helen Yglesias, Isabel Bishop (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1989), 95.

2. Ellen Wiley Todd, The "New Woman" Revised." Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 289.

3. Time, May Z3, 1949, 69.


© Estate of Isabel Bishop