21 Aug 2014
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A Forgotten Salem Master Artist: Fidelia Bridges

When looking at Salem artists too often Fidelia Bridges is overlooked even though she was one of the country's leading watercolorists for many years.

Driving down Essex Street you may have noticed the house that borders the parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel. For a number of years there was a sign out front stating the Suzannah Flint House. In recent years the name was changed to the Fidelia Bridges House. This no doubt caused some puzzlement if you noticed it. Who were these women and when did they live here?

The house dates back to the early 19th century when the land was part of the property of William Gray that encompassed 98 and 100 Essex Street. The Flint property and presumably Suzannah Flint was next door at 96 Essex Street. It appears the house was accidentally named after a neighbor who there is little information about.

When William Gray died he left the land to his son, William Gray Jr. This William Gray was a successful merchant with many vessels. He was also president of Essex Bank and The Essex Fire and Marine Insurance company.

In 1807 William sold the easterly block to his bother John, a school teacher. The best assumption is that John had this house built. Since it’s much larger than would be expected for a modestly paid school teacher it’s conjectured that the house was the product of inherited wealth from his father.

For almost two hundred years it remained a single family dwelling until the late 1980s when it was converted into a bed and breakfast, or guest house. It was at this time that it became known as the Suzannah Flint House. When the guest house was purchased by the Hawthorne Hotel in 2003 they had research done and learned of its most famous resident and changed the name. The current guest house is named after Fidelia Bridges, the third daughter in Captain Bridges’ family. Fortunately there's quite a bit of information about Fidelia.

After moving from 17 Pickman Street where the children were probably born, the Bridges family lived here throughout the 1840s.

Captain Henry Bridges (1789-1849), and his wife, Eliza Chadwick Bridges (1791-1850), had four children, Eliza (1826-1856), Elizabeth (1831-1882), Fidelia (1834-1923), and Henry (1835-1912). Captain Bridges commanded a number of ships engaged in the China trade. On December 12, 1849, he died at Canton, China. In those days the news of his death wouldn’t be known for some three months. Eliza Bridges died some three hours prior to the arrival of the news of her husband’s death. This strange turn of events was front page news in Salem.

This double tragedy left the family in difficult straits. The oldest, Eliza, 24 yrs took over the household responsibilities and care of the teens. She was already well-known in Salem for her intelligence and her teaching ability. In order to pay off the estate debts, Eliza sold most of the family possessions at auction and moved the children from this house to a more modest one at 396 Essex Street. 

In order to support the children, Eliza opened a school in Salem in which her sister, Elizabeth, helped. Fidelia, not in good health, was unable to assist and friends of the family took her with them to Virginia Springs to assist in her recovery. When she returned, Fidelia took up drawing lessons to keep her engaged during her long recovery.

During the late 1840s Anne Whitney, who would go on to be a noted sculptor, opened an art school in Salem and became friends with the Bridges. Anne Whitney was a lifelong friend to Fidelia and had a strong influence on her artistic career. As Fidelia’s health improved, she became a mother’s helper to infant daughters of the Brown family on Federal Street. William Augustus Brown was a ship owner and merchant. Fidelia became very close to the Browns who considered her family.

In 1854 the Browns moved to Brooklyn where William became a wholesale produce dealer. The Browns urged Fidelia to move with them, which she did, along with her family who were assisted by Anne Whitney’s brothers in opening a school in Brooklyn. While continuing to care for the growing Brown family, Fidelia also pursued her art and produced a number of oil paintings. With the death of her sister Eliza from tuberculosis in 1856, her sister Elizabeth continued the school.

In 1860 at the request of Anne Whitney, Fidelia attended a series of lectures by William Trost Richards, a leading proponent of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Through Anne Whitney, Fidelia became personal friends with Richards and his family and accompanied him and his family on painting vacations.  The Pre-Raphaelite Approach, with its focus on detail, was a major influence on Fidelia’s art. He also assisted her in selling her paintings to many of his patrons.

Thanks to Whitney and Richards influence as well as assistence from the Browns, Fidelia spent a year in Europe studying and painting. She returned to Brooklyn where she  lived with her sister Elisabeth.

Fidelia was always interested in painting nature, as her art developed, she focused more narrowly on detailed renditions of flowers and birds. Switching from oil to watercolor, she found a medium that worked well for her. She was able to produce works that were visually lyrical so much so, that she was asked to illustrate books of poetry.  Her subject matter was usually small selections of nature and birds.

Her reputation as a specialist painter of nature and birds gained her recognition and membership in the  National Academy of Design in 1873 and in the American Watercolor Society in 1874. She was the only female of these seven famous American artists at the time.

In 1876  she sold paintings to Louis Prang, the lithographer and publisher who reproduced them as part of a book of months enhancing Fidelia’s reputation. Her paintings were also used as illustrations by Scribner’s and Saint Nicholas magazines. In 1881 she entered  Prang’s Annual Christmas card design contest and was chosen as a designer. She continued to design Christmas cards until 1899.

Fidelia didn’t enjoy exhibitions of her art and preferred to sell to a small circle of supporters such as Prang and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). This lack of exhibitions had an impact on her achieving the stature of other artists. In 1883, she took a break from her usual routine of art to accept an offer to be governess to Mark Twain’s three daughters while the regular governess was in Europe. Interestingly, Fidelia's friendships were often marked by her willingness to assist the family with their children in the role of nanny or governess.

Throughout her life, Fidelia was a frequent letter writer, especially to her Salem friend, Rebecca Northey. Her letters provide insights into her life, and often spoke of her loneliness. This sadness at being alone without someone to share her experiences with was constant in her life. Critics have said this lonliness is seen in some of her art.

In 1892 she moved from Brooklyn to Canaan, Connecticut, where she lived in a small hillside house overlooking a meadow and millstream. She continued to paint, but rarely exhibited her work. She entered into the quiet rural society dominated by a circle of maiden women who socialized frequently.

Fidelia appears to have enjoyed this quiet life with her friends and cats. She did less painting but it was still of high quality. She also did a series of illuminated manuscripts for her close friends which consisted of diary-like entries of nature walks with detailed illustrations. Fidelia continued to travel, visiting her brother who had settled in England and entertaining visitors  until her death in 1923. The townspeople dedicated a bird sanctuary in her memory while she was largely forgotten by the art world. 

Many of her paintings are in major museums throughout the country. The Smithsonian has several of her works and lists her as one of the very few woman artists who had a successful career in the 19th century. Her lyrical paintings continue to be sought after by museums throughout the world and she remains one of America’s leading watercolorists. 

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