Living in Marblehead, it’s hard to miss the local pride for Nathaniel Hawthorne. There’s the House of Seven Gables museum and the Hawthorne Hotel.
But on the grounds of the hotel is a guest house named for another 19th-century artist from Salem who also achieved considerable acclaim in her lifetime, the painter Fidelia Bridges.
Although less well known now than Hawthorne, Bridges is attracting renewed interest. A century after her death, her works are commanding high prices at auctions, and in a new book, “Fidelia Bridges: Nature Into Art,” art historian Katherine Manthorne makes the case for getting to know Bridges and her beautiful and important artwork.
Manthorne shows how Bridges was shaped by her childhood among the seafaring society of Salem, and how she transformed the painting of flowers from a domestic pastime for ladies into an acceptable form of high art.
Bridges was just 16 years old and living in what is now the Fidelia Bridges Guest House of the Hawthorne Hotel, on Essex Street in Salem, when news of her father’s death reached the family in March of 1850. A ship’s captain, he died of yellow fever in Canton, China, in December 1849. Just three hours before the tragic news reached home, her mother died, leaving Bridges and her three siblings orphaned.
Sickened by her own sadness, Bridges was invited by family friends to recuperate in the countryside. Family lore has it that it was there that Bridges spent hours in bed drawing. With her sisters’ support and her own doggedness, she turned her hobby into a profession.
It wasn’t just her father’s loss that shaped Bridges as an artist, though. A member of the East India Marine Society — the precursor to the Peabody Essex Museum — her father likely carried back from his overseas voyages China trade paintings, porcelain, and other examples of Asian art and design that caught Bridges’ eye. Bridges kept china and books about Japanese art with her throughout her life.
In the 1860s, she incorporated elements of Asian design into her paintings of flowers and birds. In the 1870s, when a fondness for Japanese art and design swept from the upper-class collectors and art patrons to middle-class women, Bridges could barely keep up with the demand for her work, Manthorne writes.
Manthorne, a professor at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York, writes that Bridges’ art wasn’t merely popular — it was striking and important.
“Many artists paint beautiful pictures, but few change our ideas of art and beauty as Bridges did,” Manthorne writes. “In her best pictures she arranges blossoms and branchlets in a design reminiscent of Japanese prints, combined with the minutiae of the bird in the tree or the leaves on the ground.”
In company with her contemporary, fellow New England native Winslow Homer, Bridges helped to popularize watercolors. Seeing watercolors by Bridges and Homer at an exhibition in 1875, the novelist Henry James wrote that Bridges’ works were “infinitely finer and more intellectual.” As further proof of her acceptance into the rarefied art world, Bridges became the second living woman to be elected an associate of the elite National Academy of Design in 1873.
Also, like Homer, Bridges carried with her a lifelong fondness for the coast.
“It gives you a sense of meditation and calm that I think she always had,” Manthorne said in an interview. “She always liked the marsh birds and the coastal imagery.”
Her penchant for marsh and ocean are evident in her oil painting “Pastures by the Sea,” now in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.
Bridges, who never married, made a living from her art. She didn’t just paint for the wealthy. She found a middle-class market for her work and a somewhat steady income through a collaboration with Boston-based printer Louis Prang.
Beginning in the 1870s, she provided artwork for Prang’s popular chromolithographs. For one of Prang’s most popular series, “Twelve Months,” Bridges created paintings of birds and wildflowers representing the months of the year. Beginning in the 1880s, she provided art for his in-demand Christmas cards.
Bridges had a long, 35-year run as an artist in the public eye. In the years after the Civil War, her paintings offered solace and a welcome return to nature, Manthorne said in an interview.
By the time she died in 1923, the world had endured another brutal war, and Bridges had lived to see women win the right to vote and the automobile supplant the horse-drawn carriage. Her work became less relevant amid the emergence of modern art.
But today, as museums look to diversify their collections and bring in more women artists, Bridges is regaining cachet, Manthorne said.
Manthorne also points out that in our contemporary moment, there’s a new need to connect with nature through art.
“Bridges’ pictures possess the ability to direct our attention to those modest scenes with an intensity of focus unlike that of any other artist of her era,” Manthorne writes. “The outdoor world was not only the source of her pictorial motifs, it was as necessary to her life as oxygen.”
Manthorne continues, “Writing these words at the end of year two of the global pandemic, it strikes me that Bridges’ refined and understated art whispers eloquently of the benefits for humankind of connecting with nature.”
Bonnie Eissner grew up in Marblehead and currently lives in New York where she oversees editorial content for the CUNY Graduate Center as its director of communications.