One of the star students in Charles Woodbury’s painting school at Ogunquit was Gertrude Fiske, a woman from Weston, Massachusetts, with a deft hand, a desire to learn and a strong independent personality.
Woodbury encouraged his students “to paint in verbs,” said Lainey McCartney, a curatorial assistant at the Portsmouth Historical Society. “He told his students to get real expression on their canvas, to make it move.”
Fiske accomplished that as well as any of Woodbury’s students, and this summer, Discover Portsmouth is featuring 66 of her paintings and etchings in “Gertrude Fiske: American Master.” Fiske, who died in 1961, had deep ties to Maine and the Ogunquit art community. The exhibition is on view through Sept. 30 at Discover Portsmouth, which offers free admission.
McCartney got the idea for the show a year ago, when she saw a painting by Fiske hanging at the York Public Library. Fiske was part of the Pine Hill Girls, a group of local women who lived on the Pine Hill Road area of Ogunquit and trained under Woodbury.
McCartney was smitten. She did some research, and quickly learned the Fiske was a peer of several Impressionist painters, including Edmund C. Tarbell and Frank Benson in addition to Woodbury. She was widely lauded during her lifetime, was a founding member of the Boston Guild and was the first woman appointed to the Massachusetts State Art Commission, in 1930.
Most important, she was a very fine painter, McCartney said, capable of capturing intimacy and putting it on the canvas.
Before coming to Maine to study with Woodbury, Fiske studied for seven years at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She shed what McCartney called “the genteel mannerisms” of the Boston school and “forged her own path. She never shied away from anything.”
This exhibition offers an in-depth exploration of Fiske’s work, and reflects her interest in the social and political energy surrounding the women’s rights movement. Emboldened by the autonomy created by the movement, Fiske made paintings the way she saw the world, from her own unique perspective and with her own particular attitude, McCartney said. The exhibition includes some works unseen by the public and some on loan from the Farnsworth and Bowdoin museums in Maine.