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MARY STEVENS FISH (Mary Fish)

(1841-1894)

Early California Painter

by Henry Brown

One of California's earlies




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

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.



    San Fernando Mission:
    This early view of the Mission was completed when Fish was ill; she died two years later in 1894 at the age of 53. The dovecote or cupola on the roof is rarely depicted as it was removed shortly after this painting was done. The artist included the fresh rain-filled mud road in which she captured the reflection of the colonade.


    ARTICHOKE:
    Oil on canvas
    20" x 16"
    signed lower left
    Private Collection

    Fish was a competent painter of landscapes and still lifes. This depiction of the blossom of an artichoke plant demostrates an unusual combination of botanical interest and artistic skill. This is just one of several fine still life compostions which are known to exist. Although this is undated, the work fits into other dated pieces all of which are done circa 1885. This painting is part of a substantial privately held collection of Fish's work which is not for sale.

    AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

    Under Construction

    III. CATALOGUE RAISONNE

    Approximately fifty works are thought to exist. Several are owned by the Santa Barbara Historical Society, at least one by the La Purissima Mission, one by noted collector Sandy Combs of Santa Barbara. The majority are in a private collection in Carpinteria, California, having survived by descent from the artist.

    Although there is no plan to create a Catalogue Raisonne at this time, this space is set aside to record works by the artist with images, titles, dimensions, signature location and awards. This will make the work of a Catalogue easier in the future. In the event that you have work(s) by Mary Stevens Fish which you would like considered for inclusion here, please (1) create digital images, (2) include the above information and foward it, along with (3) your request for the images to be included on this site to

    .


    Signature Example:
    Because the artist never married she used only one last name--Fish. Her signature is bold and a cross between block and cursive lettering. Her usual signature is "M.S. Fish" as is shown to the right, but she was known to spell her first name out, "Mary S. Fish."



    Second Signature Example:
    Often, as in this example at left, the artist followed her signature with a date (here 1884). Note that in both examples she chose to bury her signature in a lower corner and in a shadowed area, where it is unobtrusive but distinct.

    IX. BIBLIOGRAPHY

    1. 1. Hughes, Edan Milton. Artists in California, 1786-1940, p. 473. San Fran.: Hughes Pub., 1989.
    2. 2. U.S. Census, Birth Date, Marriage Dates, Children, Death Date. Accessed through RootsWeb.com
    3. 3. Brown, Henry and Jonathan Brown. Mary Stevens Fish. Typewritten manuscript dated April 18, 1989 in the possession of Jonathan Brown (son of Henry Brown) of Carpenteria, California. A copy was provided to the editor.