Elizabeth Bishop, Poet-Painter

WE KNOW ELIZABETH BISHOP (1911-1979) as a poet.  An eminent woman of letters, she was poet laureate of the United States (1940-50) at a time that title carried weight. Deeply private, she avoided publicity as well as the public, steered clear of academic and literary discourse. She deflected blatant biographical interpretations of her work, refusing to be pigeonholed as a “lesbian poet” or tucked neatly into the Woman Poet’s corner. In the words of a friend:

Elizabeth was a very private person. To use a very old-fashioned phrase, she was a lady, and a lady does not trespass on somebody else’s privacy and expects you to maintain your own and hers too.

Her retreat included even a reticence about her painting. That aspect of her creative life is largely unknown. William Benton published a book on it in 1996 called Exchanging Hats (still available through Amazon). By then, her popular influence had dwindled and the book never moved into mainstream notice. Now, marking the centenary of her birth, comes this welcome reminder, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Other Art” , an illustrated essay by Benton in the New York Review of Books blog:

Only about forty of Bishop’s paintings have survived. Her influences were diverse. She liked Édouard Vuillard, Jules Bissiers, Oskar Kokoshka. Paul Klee, who worked small, in an ersatz primitive style, was a major influence. She once wrote to James Merrill about flying over the Andes: “You’ll see how exactly like some of Klee’s paintings they look.” Her picture Brazilian Landscape, a view from the back porch of Samambaia, the house in Petropolis where she and Lota lived from 1951 to 1967, was sent to a friend with the comment, “…it’s big enough so that if you like any section of it you can cut that part out.” This is an example of her famous modesty—but also perhaps a subtle allusion to her use of Klee’s compositional grids, built up out of discrete sections.

Elizabeth Bishop, "Brazilian Landscape"


The painting above had belonged to her doctor and disappeared after the doctor’s death. Bishop had a life-long interest in art. She collected it and wrote letters about it but never claimed to be an artist. Looking at her figures and the occasional assemblage, you appreciate her modesty. Still, there is great charm to much of it. Bishop was a naive painter refreshingly free of any pretension to being faux naif, the default elevation for weak representational artists.

“Pansies,” below, is the largest and most finished of her known paintings.  It was an impishly symbolic gift from Bishop to her lover Lota de Macedo Soares, socialite and architect. The pansy, known once as heartsease, was associated with both contemplation [pensées] and love, the juice of its flowers considered an aphrodisiac.


Elizabeth Bishop, "Pansies"


Sauer remembers her tastes:

Elizabeth had some good paintings. She had a little one by John Ferrin, a friend who came down to visit her. She said he was well known. It was a geometrical design, like Mondrian. Elizabeth introduced me to the French composers, Delius, Poulenc, and Franck. She had records of those, and we would sit and listen to the old gramophone. She had a lot of jazz records.

That elusive fey quality of her poet’s imagination, whimsical but still precise, shows up in her watercolors as well. This, made as a birthday greeting to someone unnamed, is engagingly illustrative:


Elizabeth Bishop, "Happy Birthday"


In her biographical essay, Primer Class, Bishop wrote:

I was five. My grandmother had already taught me to write on a slate my name and my family’s names and the names of the dog and the two cats. Earlier she had taught me my letters, and at first I could not get past the letter g, which for some time I felt was far enough to go. My alphabet made a satisfying short song, and I didn’t want to spoil it…. By the time school started, I could read almost all my primer, printed in both handwriting and type, and I loved every word. First, a frontispiece, it had the flag in full color, with ‘One Flag, One King, One Crown’ under it. I colored in the black-and-white illustrations that looked old-fashioned, even to me, using mostly read and green crayons.

Even a mortuary motif, based on a street in Key West where she lived for a time, carries the same unpredictability and enchantment:


Elizabeth Bishop, "Tombstones for Sale"


Her attachment to the Maritimes was the impetus behind the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia. Students of her work will be glad to see how her centenary is being celebrated in and around Halifax and Great Village. Those who just care about the painting can explore the slideshow on the website of James Jaffe Rare Books. Better yet, if you are in the neighborhood of New York’s upper east side, stop in.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey