Janet Fish, American, born 1938
Oil on canvas
70 1/4 × 60 1/2 in. (178.4 × 153.7 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Museum Collectors
Habits of Mind
- OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
Analyzing Assumptions and Overcoming Bias:
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Reading and writing—understanding character
- Development through the use of text evidence.
- Reading and writing—understanding tone
- Critical tier 3 questions – analyzing and evaluating literature
Connecting to the Work of Art
The painterly realism of Janet Fish’s art captures the effect of light and atmosphere on unusual still-lifes. In Kara, the artist composes a scene that is reminiscent of a film still rather than a portrait. This carefully composed painting allows the viewer’s own life experiences to complete the story.
In a light-filled room, a somber and reflective woman looks up from the open letter in her hand. She sits at a table strewn with everyday objects of contemporary life: a vase of flowers, a book, a bowl of candy, gloves, and shoes. The table and flowers extend beyond the edge of the canvas, suggesting life beyond the immediate scene, while gift wrap and ribbon propose future occasions or things to come.
This still-life provides a sense of place and the everyday by including more of the world and space around carefully selected objects. Fascinated with objects’ abilities to reflect and refract light, Fish often includes luminous, reflective glassware in her artworks. The artist also focuses on the packaging of objects and how light interacts with various surfaces. Kara can be viewed as a study in textures, ranging from wood to glass and cloth.
Here, the figure of the woman is painted as just another part of the composed scene. Fish attempts to avoid communicating particular messages; instead, she juxtaposes contradictory elements to create confusion and ambiguity within the scene. The artist stated, “When the figure gets into the painting, in some ways it makes it easier. The figure demands so much attention. The eye goes right to it, so in some sense that makes organization of the painting easier. On the other hand, there’s a complication, because the figure gives out so many messages.” Through a shared attention to detail within the figure and the object, Fish creates an image that is both a still-life and a portrait. Brilliant light, color, and movement unite the objects in the composition and present them as if they are clues to an untold story.
While it is natural to want to create a narrative from the scene, Fish includes several road blocks that impede viewers from doing so. There are no visual clues to indicate a particular time or place. The wool sweater and thick gloves point to a winter scene, but the bright and colorful bouquet refers to spring. Bright pops of color in the candy and the unused wrapping paper contrast with the dull brown of the shoes and gloves. The shoes, resting on tissue paper, and the gloves, with their tags still attached, appear to be gifts that will soon be wrapped. The contrast of the functional yet unexciting gifts with the bright and colorful wrapping paper creates a tone of ambiguity. This feeling is enhanced by the faraway look on the face of the figure as she rests her chin on her hand and gazes into the distance, as if dreaming of another place.
The large scale nature of Fish’s works can be traced back to her early study of Abstract Expressionism, but her attention to detail is reminiscent of 17th century Dutch still-life paintings. Just as Dutch artists carefully composed their scenes, Fish selects, arranges, and rearranges the objects in her compositions. The striking difference between Fish’s work and more traditional still-lifes is her modern and monumental approach. Rather than just capturing a singular moment in time, Fish’s canvases often represent an amalgam of changing light conditions that she observed throughout the day.
- What do you notice about this painting? Look closely at and describe the various objects on the table. Think about their color, texture, and form as well as their placement in relation to each other.
- What words would you use to describe the woman’s pose and the expression? How does her expression set a tone within the painting?
- How are the objects connected within composition through the use of color?
- Notice how the artist includes both bright color and more muted tones. Is there a recognizable pattern to which objects are bright and colorful and which are muted? How does this juxtaposition of color add to the tone of the painting?
- The artist considers this work a still-life painting. Is this what you expect a still-life painting to look like? Why or why not? How would this work be different if the artist had not included a figure and just painted the objects on the table?
- Reflect back on your first reaction to the work. What do you notice first, the figure of the woman or the array of objects on the table? What do you think is the main subject of this painting?
- What visual clues does the artist use to place the equal importance on the figure of the woman and the objects on the table?
- Using visual clues, can you figure out what time of year this painting is meant to depict? Consider the clothing of the figure versus the bouquet of flowers. If not, why do you think the artist would want to confuse viewers?
- When the artist began to include human figures in her still-life paintings, she stated, “The danger with my work now is that people might focus on the story.” How does she prevent a narrative from forming within her composition?
- Consider the gifts that will soon be wrapped on the table. Are they what you typically think of as gifts? How does the juxtaposition add a feeling of uncertainty to the image?
- What other juxtapositions does she include that intently confuse the viewers?
- How does the artist invite viewers visually into the work? How does she encourage viewers to then consider their own experiences and ideas?
- How would we view this painting differently if the artist had not included a name (Kara) as the title?
Connecting to the Classroom
- FIRST LOOK—Ask as many of the conversation starter questions as time permits, focusing on understanding the CHARACTER of the woman in the painting. Highlight the “support evidence” in the painting that back up conclusions reached about the woman’s character.
- Revisit—Ask questions that focus on the tone—what does the artist think about this woman? Is the artist’s attitude pleasant or unpleasant toward the woman? What MOOD does the artist want us to be in when we look at this painting? Why do you think so?
- Explain to students that the artist considered this a still-life, and ask students to reach inferences and conclusions relating to that belief. What is a “still-life?” Why does the artist consider this a still-life? Do you agree or disagree? WHY or WHY NOT?
- Writing prompt/BRAINSTORMING—Respond to this painting, describing all the things you think the woman in the painting is thinking.
- Write a “viewer’s response” to this painting, analyzing the character of the woman. Use “support evidence” from the painting to support the analysis. Highlight the support evidence.
- Based on their analysis of this painting, students could write a character sketch of their own imagination, using DETAILS to make the character come alive.
Subject Matter Connection
Kara by Janet Fish can be used to develop students’ abilities to communicate ideas and understand the importance of supporting detail in making inferences and drawing conclusions. It also can help students develop critical thinking skills by challenging their thoughts about the idea of a still life. In reading, the ability to use detail (“text evidence”) to support responses to literature and promote understanding is critical; in writing, the ability to expand ideas through use of details supporting a topic sentence or thesis is equally critical. The ability to analyze and synthesize text evidence is critical to these reading and writing skills. By using student’s observations of details in Kara to formulate conclusions about the painting’s central figure and the artist’s depiction of a “still life,” students will gain valuable insight and practice in the use of support, which can transfer to their independent reading and writing. This painting also is an excellent example to demonstrate the literary element concepts of tone and mood, which are difficult for middle school students to understand. Very often, students are reluctant to communicate ideas that challenge traditional answers. Thus, by using the painting to challenge the idea of what a “still life” should be, students gain an opportunity to risk different ideas and overcome the fear of ambiguity or being wrong—which can also transfer to their creativity in writing and their ability to understand ambiguity in literature and poetry.
Resources Available to Order
- Portraits, People
Reveals the way artists arrange people individually and in groups to communicate ideas.MFAH Catalog Number: DV145
- In the Time of Warhol: The Development of Contemporary Art
Profiles major artists of the second half of the 20th century in the context of the political, economic, and other changes occurring throughout the world.MFAH Catalog Number: BK294
- The Art Gallery: Faces
Take an intimate look at some of the world’s most famous portraits and their artists.MFAH Catalog Number: BK114
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.