I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another, strength enough to stand up and be laughed at, if necessary…But in a few years it will not be thought strange that women should be preachers and sculptors, and everyone who comes after us will have to bear fewer and fewer blows. (as cited in Heller, 1987, p.73).
Harriet Hosmer, a nineteenth century American sculptor, wrote the above statement in 1883. She could have been speaking of another nineteenth century American artist, Fidelia Bridges (1834-1923). Fidelia Bridges strayed from the beaten path of the traditional Victorian American woman. Her path led to a distinguished career as an inspiring watercolorist. Fortunately for us, she had the courage to follow that path.
Fidelia grew up comfortably, as one of four children of a sea captain and his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. But her life changed drastically when her father died when Fidelia was just fifteen years old. Her mother’s death followed three months later. The Bridges’ children, ages fourteen to twenty-five, were left to fend for themselves. Fidelia’s oldest sister, Eliza, took charge initially by teaching and earning what she could. But Fidelia fell ill at the news of her parents’ deaths and was often cared for by family friends. During this period Fidelia took art lessons and was exposed to the work of other emerging artists seen in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1856, Eliza died of tuberculosis, leaving Fidelia and her two remaining siblings to struggle once again with loss and financial hardship. Fidelia took on employment as a mother’s helper to make ends meet. During this period, friend and sculptor, Anne Whitney encouraged Fidelia to pursue a career in art. Fidelia studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy, partly funded by the family for whom she worked. She initially painted in oils, but after travelling to Europe with friends to further study, she returned to Brooklyn and dedicated herself to watercolors and wildlife.
Fidelia’s watercolors are known for their exquisite detail. Fidelia’s compositions are unique – perhaps influenced by Asian paintings she would have encountered through her father’s trading. She was known to set out to paint in the field – in particular, the salt marshes of Stratford, Connecticut where she studied nature and created “miniature coastal ecosystems” (Manthorne, 2012, p.31). She was particularly gifted in depicting light. Her subject matter is at times is so luminous and three-dimensional, an appropriate description would be sculptural (Manthorne, 2012, p.32).
Fidelia became a success, exhibiting and selling numerous original pieces of art as well as reproductions in the form of lithographs, illustrated cards, calendars, and books. In 1873, her work was further endorsed when she was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design, one of only two living female members at the time. (Manthorne, 2012, p.32) She was also the “first female member to join the American Society of Painters in Water Color (now known as the The American Watercolor Society) in 1875” (Orlomoski, 2012, para. 18).
Fidelia’s personal story adds even more value to her paintings. Fidelia was a woman who knew loss, financial struggles, illness, and, loneliness. Yet she rose above all of these obstacles to care for herself and her family. At the same time she did not sacrifice her passion. She held on to her dream of expressing herself with her paints and brushes. She trod out to the marshes, burdened with cumbersome clothing and equipment, all in an effort to paint what she loved. She was not daunted by the challenges of a woman supporting herself during an era when men dominated most industries, including the arts. She persevered through all of these difficulties, not only surviving, but thriving.
Fidelia continued painting into her sixties when she moved to England, maintaining her ties with nature by tending her garden and sketching. In 1923, Fidelia died at the age of 89.
Loneliness was a pervasive emotion in Fidelia’s life. She wrote to friends of her loneliness – she longed for company, but never married. She tried to overcome her sorrow by filling her time painting. I wonder if she ever succeeded in that regard. Did she consider her life a success? Centuries later, her work is honored among several major public and private collections. Whatever sorrow Fidelia may have felt, it is the beauty of her paintings that remains.
Minna Kempf is an art educator and children’s book illustrator. She is a graduate student at Buffalo State, enrolled in Kathy Gaye Shiroki’s Fundamentals of Educational Programming for Museums course held at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.