Mary Stevens Fish was born in Sidney Plains, New York on February 24, 1841, the seventh child of the Rev. John Berrian Fish and Nancy Stevens Fish. John Fish was a Presbyterian minister; Nancy Stevens was the daughter of Mary de Forest, whose family dates back to the 1600s in the the New World. As a young woman Stevens studied art in New York before she sets out for her journey to California.
In 1875, at the age of 33, Fish and her mother traveled by train to Los Angeles and came to live in Carpinteria, California. She studied art with the prominent landscape painter Henry Chapman Ford who also arrived in Carpinteria in 1875 with his wife. The artist and her mother choose Carpinteria because Mary's brother Charles had settled in Carpinteria in 1871. Charles and his business partner Steven Olmstead had come cross country for the gold rush in 1848. Several of the artist's other brothers eventually arrived in the Carpinteria area. The Olmstead and Fish families are considered pioneer stock in the city of Carpinteria.
Fish continued her art studies for several years with Henry Chapman Ford. A small art colony was established in Santa Barbara with Ford as the recognized leader. Ford and his students traveled up the coast looking for attractions to paint. Because he and Fish dated their paintings we know that in 1878 their destination was Yosemite Valley. There are at least four extant paintings from that visit.
In May 1882, Mary opened her own studio in Santa Barbara, on Anapamu Street. This established her as the first professional woman artist in the Central Coast and one of the first in California. She also took in students for instruction, as described in the Santa Barbara Press on May 16, 1882 and again on January 15, 1883. During this period she continued to paint local adobes and missions as well as landacapes. As was common for artists at that time, Fish would paint a small study of her subject and then paint a larger canvas to which she would add a few more details and people.
In 1886 Fish and Ella Goodwin published a unique booklet of hand-painted scenes and flowers with accompanying verse. Several copies remain.
In late 1886, she moved to Los Angeles and tried to make a living from her painting. Los Angeles was very small at the time and one can only wonder what was thought of Fish as she tried to establish herself in this growing city. Times were hard for her, and she moved many times in a few years. Her addresses included:
211 S. Bunker Hill (1886-1887)
Booth in Court (1887)
410 Virginia Ave. (1890)
2610 Virginia Ave. (1891)
The Winthrop (1892-1893)
It is thought that this was a very difficult period for her. Yet she completed some of her finest paintings at this time, including the San Fernando Mission (below) and a delightful painting of the unprotected harbor at the city of Avalon on Catalina Island. In 1894 and in poor health, she returned to Carpinteria to live at Walker Place at the foot of Shepard's Mesa with her brother Henry's sister-in-law Emmaline Walker. She died on April 10, 1895 and is buried in Carpinteria, California.