Mary Fife (1898/1900-1990)
Place in the Sun
Tempera and oil on masonite panel; 24 x 30 inches. Signed lower right: "Mary Fife"
Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum of American Art, November 10 - December 12, 1937, no. 88; Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015; "Pop-up" exhibition, University of Arizona Museum of Art, December 2, 2018.
USArtists American Fine Art Show (catalogue, 2002), p. 50; Hittner, Arthur D., "Art of the Thirties: Rediscovered Masters of the American Scene," Antiques & Fine Art, Autumn/Winter, 2009, p. 167; Enduring America (catalogue).
Todd, Ellen Wiley, The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (University of California Press, 1993), especially pp. 100-102.
Acquired October 19, 2002 from Joyce Kirschner Fine Arts, New York, NY.
Panel mounted on braced stretcher. Inscribed “MARY FIFE” and “PLACE IN THE SUN – 1934” on stretcher. Recent 3½-inch incised gold frame by Gill & Lagodich Gallery, New York, NY.
Fig. 1 - Mary E. Fife (Laning), The Lovers (or The Stoop), 1935 (lithograph).
Fig. 2 - Mary E. Fife (Laning), Preliminary Sketches for Place in the Sun, c. 1934 (pencil on paper, Hittner Collection).
A native of Canton, Ohio, Mary Elizabeth Fife earned her B.A. from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1923 and did postgraduate work at Cooper Union in New York City from 1925-27. She studied at the prestigious Academie Russe in Paris (1928) and later with Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League in New York (1930-35), where she met and married (in 1933) the artist Edward Laning (1906-1981). Laning, along with Miller, Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop, are the best known members of the so-called “Fourteenth Street School,” a talented group of realist painters whose studios were situated in the Union Square-Fourteenth Street area of New York City and whose subject matter was the people and places of that neighborhood. Place in the Sun, which was exhibited by Fife at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1937, is a classic work of the Fourteenth Street genre, as well composed and as deftly executed as any of those by her more celebrated colleagues. The subject of the painting, four young working women spending their lunch hour in the sunshine on an office rooftop on a hot summer day, relates closely to the sympathetic portrayals of working girls by the artist’s contemporary and close friend, Isabel Bishop. Fife’s women, however, are more sensual, approaching the more overt sexuality favored by Reginald Marsh (with whom she worked on the Custom House mural commission in New York City during the mid-Thirties). Her subjects are physically strong and emotionally confident, thoroughly unfazed by the leering glances of men from nearby office windows. The feminist subtext of the composition is underscored by the dual meaning inherent in the title Fife chose for her work. Fife's best known lithograph, The Lovers (also known as The Stoop), executed in 1936 (see Fig. 1), is described by one observer as "[a] chaotic jigsaw puzzle of bodies possessed by zesty lust writh[ing] outdoors on a summer night in Greenwich Village."* Her work celebrated what has come to be referred to as the "New Woman" of whom Randolph Bourne (1886-1918) wrote:
They are decidedly emancipated and advanced, so thoroughly healthy and zestful...They shock you constantly....They have an amazing combination of wisdom and youthfulness, of humor and ability, and innocence and self-reliance....They are of course all self-supporting and independent, and they enjoy the adventure of life...."**
The serendipitous discovery of a pair of rough preliminary sketches (Fig. 2, below left) and a series of photographs (Fig. 3, at the foot of this page) included in a small archive of materials created or collected by Edward Laning and Mary Fife offers rare insight into the artist’s process in composing Place in the Sun. The eight photographs in Fig. 3, most presumably of the artist herself and likely taken on the roof of the couple's building at 12 E. 17th Street, offer alternative poses for the rooftop figures. Fife employed the bottom two, with only minimal modification, for the two women in the foreground of the painting. The top sketch in Fig. 2 works out the positioning of the four figures; the bottom makes minor adjustments in centering and includes additional details in the right background while hinting at figures that will ultimately appear on the fire escapes in the upper left hand corner of the final composition (although most architectural details have yet to be addressed). Pencil notations in the margin, to the extent legible, indicate the size of the painting and the props (e.g., “Sandwitches” [sic]) to appear in the final work. Comparison of the photographs with the painting indicate that the artist took liberties with the surrounding buildings, eliminating blank walls in favor of a more architecturally appealing vista.
Few other works by Fife have been located, although she was widely exhibited (Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Art Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, to name a few), well-connected within the New York City art world (she served as a board member of the National Association of Women Artists and Pen & Brush Inc.), active in teaching (Kansas City Art Institute, 1940-45; Birch-Wathem School in New York City, 1961-70) and the winner of several significant art awards (National Academy of Design figure prize, 1967; Pen & Brush Prize, 1969; National Association of Women Artists Lillian Cotton award, 1966).
Although Fife is listed in some references as having been born in 1904, she claimed in certain government documents to have been born in 1900. She is listed, however, as 32 years of age in the 1930 U.S. Census, making 1898 her most likely birth year. She died in 1990.
* Quoted in catalogue essay by Edwards, Kathleen A., "From a Distance: The New York Skyline and the New Woman" in Subject Matters: The Alan and Ann January Collection of American Prints and Drawings (University of Iowa Museum of Art, 2006), p. 20. The lithograph was dismissed as obscene by some local observers when it appeared at the 46th Annual Exhibition of American Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1935, "based less on nudity than upon a suggestiveness which some observers say they discover in facial expressions, contours and attitudes." S.J. Duncan-Clark, "Art Exhibit Stirs Storm in Chicago," The New York Times, November 17, 1935.
My wife and I were attending the 2002 edition of the USArtists American Fine Art Show in Philadelphia, a journey that had become an autumn ritual even before our daughter became a student at the University of Pennsylvania just a stone’s throw from the tired West Philly armory facility that traditionally hosted the annual event. One of the exhibitors that year was Joyce Kirschner, a private dealer specializing in paintings of the Thirties and Forties whom we’d visited several times previously in New York (she’d later be the source of another of our favorite paintings, Alexander Levy’s Negro Spiritual). Arriving on the middle day of the weekend event, we’d covered at least half of the exhibition when we arrived at Joyce’s booth. There, propped against the wall, was Place in the Sun. My wife, who’s a reliably hard sell when it comes to buying art, looked at me with a sense of excitement I’d rarely seen her display in the presence of art for sale. More than any time previously or since, we were in such thrall of the art that the cost seemed (almost) irrelevant. This was an extraordinary painting by an unheralded female artist, a paean to women’s independence long before its time. It was also the epitome of the Fourteenth Street school of painting, one that embraced such artists as Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Isabel Bishop, Edward Laning and, as was now plain to see, Laning’s talented wife, Mary Fife. We snapped up the painting at once. Lucky we did so. "[S]everal dealers at the show were quite obviously distressed that the work had been sold," Joyce wrote us the following week. Then, a few weeks later, she wrote us on behalf of an unidentified party who wished to know if we'd be amenable to selling the painting (presumably at a significant profit). It never crossed our minds, then or since.
Fig. 2 - Unidentified Photographer, c. 1934, Studies for Place in the Sun. Archive of sketches, studies and other materials created or collected by Edward Laning and Mary Fife. Private collection.