One of the most successful female painters in 19th century America, Fidelia Bridges (1834-1923) was called a “true daughter of New England.” Born to a ship’s captain and his wife in Salem, Mass., she later established her residence in Connecticut. There she sat for hours in the woods or along the marshes, observing finches, bluebirds and sandpipers.
She worked in pencil and watercolor to capture each species in combination with local plants and encouraged viewers of her pictures to become more sensitive to the cycles of nature.
Flower painting had long been dismissed as the trivial pursuit of young girls and amateurs, but Bridges changed all that. Her works sold at professional venues faster than she could paint them. Her close study of nature allowed her to create pictures so realistic that critics claimed that they exuded the fragrance of field blossoms and glowed with the plumage of birds.
A feminist in spirit, she always insisted that women had the right to shape independent careers on their own terms.
Artist Fidelia Bridges
Born into the age of the horse and buggy, she lived to ride about in automobiles and see women get the right to vote. Since 2023 is the centenary of the death of this remarkable artist, this is an appropriate moment to reflect upon her achievements.
From the age of 16 when she lost their parents and the family home, Fidelia Bridges and her siblings were forced to fend for themselves. While their brother headed off to sea, the young women pursued the few occupations open to them in the 1850s: teaching school and working as a governess.
Recognizing Fidelia’s precocious artistic talent, her sisters helped her obtain training in Salem and later in Philadelphia. Soon she was exhibiting oil paintings at the prestigious venues in New York City like the National Academy of Design. Realizing that watercolor was her true medium, she created small works on paper that dazzled writers like Henry James and Mark Twain, who purchased them.
As her reputation grew, one journalist pondered whether her pictures “will continue [to be] popular with buyers until one or two might fall in[to] the hands of Prang or some other chromo publisher, when reproduced in a cheap form they will become… a drug on the market.”
He was referring to Louis Prang, the Boston-based publisher who had perfected a process for accurate color reproductions of works of art that could be sold cheaply and in large numbers. “Miss Bridges’ work,” the journalist continued, “owing to its peculiar tones, would chromo admirably, but we trust that no such misfortune will overtake it.”
Unbeknown to him, Prang had already recognized the potential of her work to “chromo.” (Like “Google” in our day, the use of chromolithography became so common that it was shortened to a verb). Prang worked with the leading male artists of the day including Winslow Homer, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. But he realized that the unique palette and subtle chromatic shifts that Bridges achieved in her watercolors would best showcase his printing method.
In 1875 he therefore conceived an elaborate collaborative project entitled Twelve Months. For the project, he commissioned from Fidelia a dozen watercolors of birds in New England landscape settings. They represented the changing conditions of season and weather over the course of a year.
Working at his headquarters in Roxbury, Prang’s lithographers would then reproduce the watercolors and print hundreds of copies of each one, approximately 13 x 10 inches. With his shrewd sense of the post-Civil War art market, Prang understood a single watercolor might sell for $100, but if he sold 500 copies of it at $5 each the profit would be much greater.
A Year in New England
Bridges’ pictures came to be prized by middle-class housewives all over the United States. They could never afford an original painting, but were happy to own a handsome reproduction.
A close look at the chromolithograph of April demonstrates why her work was so popular. A branch jutting out from the left with pink blossoms just beginning to open provides the perch for two small birds. The artist has perfectly captured the atmosphere of April with her choice of flowers and bird: the song sparrow that heralds the arrival of spring with its singing (note the open mouth of the bird at right). Aware of nature’s multiple micro-habitats, she made a separate study of the ground below with small green plants poking up through the dead leaves. She then inserted those details into the final picture to convey the cycles of growth and decay.
Like April, her renderings of the other eleven months all have their characteristic color schemes, vegetation and avian species. Together, they chronicled the passage of one year’s time in New England.
While Bridges worked on her Twelve Months, Prang debuted another initiative: his first line of Christmas cards. An immediate success, the cards sold for $1.25 each (a considerable amount at the time). They were treasured by families who displayed them on their mantels.
Fidelia Bridges, Household Name
By 1880 Prang was running out of design ideas and decided to hold a competition to generate fresh inspiration. Bridges’ submission won her a position as permanent designer. Over the years she she created some of the most treasured examples. Prang was called “the father of the Christmas card,” but the public looked for cards with the moniker “F. Bridges” to send their holiday greetings.
Until Prang shuttered his chromolithography business in the 1890s, Bridges continued to provide him with watercolors and designs for Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day.
Although the pairing of this proper New England female painter and the brash German-born businessman might have seemed an unlikely duo, their 20-year working relationship gave rise to a stunning portfolio of images by Bridges. Her work enjoyed national circulation as chromolithographs and helped establish her reputation.
Alongside her work for Prang, she found many additional outlets for her creativity. Each year she submitted watercolors and occasionally oil paintings to exhibitions around the country. She was also a leading figure of the American Watercolor Society, where her works sold year after year.
With the emergence of the revolutionary new format of the colorplate book in the 1880s, Bridges found yet another outlet for her distinctive imagery. She made numerous trips across the Atlantic, where she felt a special bond with the English countryside. At her home in Canaan, Conn., she cultivated a magnificent garden that her mentor, William Trost Richards, his daughter, Anna Richards Brewster, and many others took great pleasure in visiting and sketching.
Not surprisingly, she grew increasingly involved in nature conservation, and early on she joined the American Forestry Association.
Working 10 hours a day for much of her life, Bridges completely dedicated herself to what she regarded as an artistic calling. She continued to be flexible and seek new outlets for her images over her 50-year career.
While these endeavors may strike some as disparate, they were grounded in two constants that bound all of her work together. One was her deep knowledge of and reverence for nature that provided a primary theme that ran through her work. The other was her fusion of Eastern and Western art traditions. That predilection belonged to her Salem heritage.
Fidelia Bridges, Daughter of Salem
As the daughter of a ship’s captain, she had access to a world far beyond Massachusetts. Capt. Henry Bridges was a well-respected member of the East India Marine Society, which also included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s father. He participated in the hugely profitable trade that had transformed this modest New England seaport into a global power.
By the time Captain Bridges embarked on his first voyage, the focus of trade shifted to Boston and New York. But the Salem men still plied the waters back and forth to China. They returned with three main staples that Americans increasingly desired—tea, silk and Chinese porcelain. Fidelia Bridges kept those items close for the rest of her days.
Organized in 1799, the East India Marine Society had a threefold purpose: share navigational information related to the East Indies; help families of members who died; and “form a Museum of natural history and artificial curiosities.” The captains took seriously their charge to bring home historic and aesthetic objects, and they developed one of the most influential collecting institutions in antebellum United States. This assemblage meant that Asian art and design were integrated into the life of Fidelia Bridges and would make their mark on her future artistic production.
Her chromolithograph May might initially appear to be a modest picture with small birds hovering around flowering branches. But when compared with Utagawa Hiroshige’s Small Bird (Swallow) on a Cherry Branch, a woodblock print created in Japan in 1854, it demonstrates her embrace of the attributes of Asian art to express the vitality of nature.
Japanese artists were not bound by pictorial conventions of symmetry or one-point perspective. Instead, they created asymmetrical compositions. They often cut forms off by the picture’s margin, contributing to the decorative character. Looking again at the picture of April we see the same influence at work, with the form of the tree cut off at the composition’s edge. With the slightly tilted perspective, an eastern sense of space imbues the picture.
Bridges’ work shared with her Asian counterparts an aesthetic simplicity. It was a principle to which she adhered throughout her entire life.
She fused her natural surroundings and avian life of New England with notions of balance and minimalism common to the Far East. Living an outwardly conventional life, Fidelia Bridges was a rebel who created works acquired by collectors and museums nationwide: a testament to her pioneering artistic legacy.
 Alice Sawtelle Randall, “Connecticut Artists and their Work: Miss Fidelia Bridges in her Studio at Canaan,” The Connecticut Magazine v. 7, n. 5 (February-March 1902): 588.
 Katherine Manthorne, Fidelia Bridges: Nature into Art (London: Lund Humphries, 2023) provides a full account of the artist’s life and work, and is the source for all information in this article.
Unidentified author, “Fine Arts: Miss Fidelia Bridges,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle July 30, 1874, p. 3.
The author, Katherine Manthorne, is on the art history faculty at the Graduate Center of City University of New York and prior to that she was Director of the Research Center at Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. The winner of numerous fellowships and awards, she recently a new book published Fidelia Bridges: Nature into Art (Lund Humphries, 2023). Other recent books exploring 19th century female artists in two volumes: Women in the Dark: American Female Photographers 1850-1900 (Schiffer Publishing, 2020) and Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex (U. of California Press, 2020). She lives in New York City and the Champlain Valley with her husband James Lancel McElhinney and their cat Maeve.