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
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
Analyzing Assumption 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.
- Analyze data to formulate reasonable explanations; communicate valid conclusions supported by the data.
- The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions. The student analyzes, evaluates, and critiques scientific explanations.
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 the 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? What 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 emphasize 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 visually invite viewers 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
- Describe what you see in details.
- Analyze the painting. What kind of day is the woman having? How do you know?
- How many different ways can you interpret the meaning of this painting?
- Use science vocabulary to play “I Spy Science”: Describe a part of the painting using scientific terminology. Ask students to guess what parts of the painting represent what you are describing and circle their guesses on the SMART board. (For example, ask them to find a part of the painting that shows photosynthesis.)
- Extend the vocabulary, discovered above, to a range of science ideas by using the attached PowerPoint in order to propose explanations that integrate science content. Rework the visual content by focusing on the science content.
- Write a summary of how science is reflected in this work of art.
Subject Matter Connection
Scientific investigations and reasoning are used to develop a rich knowledge of science and the natural world. Students must become familiar with different modes of scientific inquiry, rules of evidence, ways of formulating questions, ways of proposing explanations, and the diverse ways scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on evidence derived from their work. The desire to rework ideas and the openness to a range of solutions are all part of the investigative scientific experience. Investigations, hypotheses, and conclusions require students to rework their ideas as they learn concepts….it is the basis for investigations.
Resources Available to Order
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.