Harrison Fisher and the American Beauty

Two Roses
Harrison Fisher and the American Beauty
Melissa Speed
University of North Texas - Denton, Texas
School of Library and Information Sciences
5450 Rare Books Term Paper
Fall 1999 Semester
All Rights Reserved

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Harrison Pond Fisher was a renowned portrait painter who redefined the American ideal of feminine beauty in the first two and a half decades of the 20th century.Harrison Fisher

Harrison Fisher

Fisher was a third-generation artist. His paternal grandparents, Felix Xiver Fischer and his wife Mary, immigrated from Bohemia, Austria, now part of the Czech Republic, to New York City;  Felix Fisher is listed in the June 21, 1880 federal census in Brooklyn, New York with the occupation of artist. (The surname of Fischer was changed to Fisher sometime after they immigrated.) Harrison Fisher was born in Brooklyn, New York on July 27, 1875.  Harry Fisher, age 6, is listed living with his parents, Hugo and Addie, and his three year old brother Hugo in the household of his maternal grandparents, Emiel and Cornelia Langerstrom, on Clarkson Street in Brooklyn.  Hugo Sr.'s birthplace is also listed as Bohemia; Harrison states in a 1922 passport application that his father was born in Prague, Bohemia.  Emiel Langerstrom's birthplace is listed as Russia.  Hugo Sr.'s occupation, like his father's, is listed as artist. 

Not much is known about Harrison Fisher's early life, other than his family moved from Brooklyn to Alameda, California when Fisher was nine. Harrison Fisher's father, Hugo Antone Fisher, who had been instructed in drawing by his own father, continued the tradition with his two sons and became the chief influence on Harrison and his brother's early work. Harrison Fisher's brother, Hugo Melville Fisher, became a distinguished artist of landscapes, coastal and Parisian street scenes and studied under Wheeler, Laurens, Bouguereau, and Constant in Paris. Harrison Fisher enrolled in the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco to receive formal training.

Laughing Water

1st Image Published
1894 Deck of Playing Cards:
"Laughing Water" (Minnehaha)

While studying at the Institute, Fisher attended classes instructed by professor Amedee Joullin, a noted artist for paintings of Aztec Indians. During those classes, he drew a picture of an Indian girl that was purchased by the United States Playing Card Company and published on the back of decks of playing cards. Harrison Fisher's grandparents had owned an art studio in Brooklyn, NY. The same year the image of the Indian maiden was published, in 1894, his father and brother opened an art studio in San Francisco. A humor magazine, Judge, also published a political cartoon drawn by Fisher on the back cover of their May 26, 1894 issue.

Japan-Made America
1st Magazine Cover Illustration
Judge Magazine back cover, Japan-Made America May 26, 1894

Harrison Fisher was sixteen. A year later, Fisher was hired by the Morning Call, later named the San Francisco Call. He moved on from the Call to William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. Not long after, William Randolph Hearst recognized his talent and dispatched Harrison Fisher to New York City to work for a new acquisition, the New York Journal.

Harrison Fisher's main ambition was to become an Illustrator, not merely a free-lance or comics artist. He quickly moved on from the New York Journal to work for Puck, one of the nation's first humor magazines. His free-lance work began to appear on the covers of other periodicals like The Saturday Evening Post in 1898, Woman's Home Companion in 1901, The Ladies' Home Journal in 1903, Collier's and Cosmopolitan both in 1907, as well as many others. He also illustrated short stories within the covers of the magazines. In 1906, Harrison Fisher began to illustrate for another of William Randolph Hearst's publications, a newspaper supplement called the American Magazine. "The American Magazine became the first syndicated Sunday magazine supplement and had the largest circulation than any other weekly magazine in the world." (Welch 16) The American Magazine increased the audience for Harrison Fisher's illustrations and made his name and style recognized all over America. Fisher began to publish more regularly for Cosmopolitan magazine, acquired by Hearst in 1905, and became the top artist for its cover illustrations. Throughout his tenure, Harrison Fisher's artistic style and subjects became closely identified with Cosmopolitan magazine. "His work appeared nearly every month on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine without interruption for 22 years. A total of 293 covers featured his work." (Welch 16) He also illustrated at least 112 covers for Nash's magazine, 110 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, and 37 covers for Ladies Home Journal, but none of his work for the other magazines exceeded the number of illustrations he drew for Cosmopolitan magazine.
It was around the time that Harrison Fisher began to furnish illustrations for magazine covers of women's beauty magazines that the subject of his illustrations was established. The subject of his artistry from almost the beginning of his career would be depicting elegant upper-class women.
Harrison Fisher painted the portraits of many famous actresses, singers, and writers. He painted portraits of William Randolph Hearst's mistress Marion Davies, the famous Scott F. Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Billie Burke, Pola Negri, and others.

As Harrison Fisher's popularity rose he went on to furnish original illustrations and cover art for popular novels, eventually providing art for over one hundred. He provided artwork for over a dozen novels by Percy Brebner, George Barr McCutcheon, Harold MacGrath, and Katherine Thurston, including The Alternative, Beverley of Graustark, Cowardice Court, Day of the Dog, Jane Cable, Nedra, Arms and the Woman, Hearts and Masks, and The Lure of the Mask among many others. Fisher also contributed illustrations to Their Heart's Desire by Frances Foster Perry.
Not Yet But Soon Magazines that owned the rights to Harrison Fisher's illustrations started printing his illustrations on postcards, prints, and other ephemera as he gained in popularity. Often, these prints and many of the postcards have a higher collectible value than individual bookplates, because they had small print runs and were printed on poorer quality paper, so fewer of these illustrations have survived to current day. Cosmopolitan made prints with dimensions of 11" x 15" of selected illustrations such as Baby Mine, My Man, and Not Yet, But Soon.

Not Yet But Soon
Cosmopolitan Published Print

His illustrations were printed on postcards in the United States, Austria, Bulgaria, The Netherlands, Finland, France, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Harrison Fisher images surfaced on unlicensed Finnish postcards in the 1920's. (Mashburn 2) Harrison Fisher's illustrations were also printed on candy tins, plates, bowls, vases, pocket mirrors, and many other items.
Harrison Fisher Girls
In 1907, when Harrison Fisher's name was nationally known and his illustrations made the covers of many beauty magazines he signed an agreement with Charles Scribner's Sons to publish a large art book of his illustrations. The Harrison Fisher Book was the first of fifteen art books that featured his illustrations exclusively with selected poetry. (See a Chronological Table of his Artbooks) Harrison Fisher was at the height of his fame. The art books differed from the magazine covers and book illustrations in that they contained large, glossy bookplates of his illustrations and were showcases of his talent and ethereal style.

Harrison Fisher Girls art book
published in 1914

Charles Scribner's Sons printed 15,675 copies of The Harrison Fisher Book. Each copy was sold at $3.00 each. At the height of his fame, Harrison Fisher commanded advances from between $2,000 and $4,000 per art book as well as 50 cents from every copy sold in America, and 15% of the net price for each book sold internationally. (Welch 50) Bobbs-Merrill, Charles Scribner's Sons, Dodd, Mead, Grosset & Dunlap, and Copp, Clark Co. in Canada published his art books. They were the same publishers who published novels with his illustrations. His work also appeared in large art book anthologies among which were: American Art by American Artists, King Albert's Book, Eight American Artists, Thirty Favorite Paintings, and Pictures in Color by Famous American Artists.

The illustrations published in the art books vary in size depending on the size of the art book. The method by which the illustrations were bound in the books also varies; some art books have bookplates, others have tipped-in illustrations. Five of the fifteen art books have tipped-in illustrations. The tipped-in prints are attached to leaves that are neither lignin nor acid-free. This accounts for some discoloration on the underside of those prints. Likewise, text pages in the art books and novels are not lignin or acid-free and their direct contact with the top of a bookplate may result in discoloration. However, it is not difficult to find bookplates and illustrations that are in very good condition. The materials used and manner with which the illustrations were printed has not considerably damaged surviving illustrations and bookplates. The bookplates that appear in the other art books were produced by chromolithography on high quality clay-coated paper. The bookplate paper stock is, of course, a heavier stock than that used for the text pages or, for that matter, in any of Harrison Fisher's illustrations that appeared in periodicals.

The illustrations in many of the art books are accompanied by famous poetry and verse. These text pages are lavishly decorated with borders that complement and provide wonderful period Victorian ornamentation to the art books. Large rococo roses emphasize the resplendent quality of the portraits and the imposing size of the art books. Theodore B. Hapsgood and E. Stetson Crawford provided the decorative artwork for many of Harrison Fisher's novel and art book illustrations. American Beauties contains lavish decorative frames by E. Stetson Crawford on each text page. For art books with tipped-in illustrations there is no decorative text artwork.
text illustration
Text page with illustration from art book
American Beauties; Text illustration by E. Stetson Crawford

Illustrations are entitled in only seven of the art books. The remaining eight art books have untitled illustrations. The titles often differ between Harrison Fisher's book illustrations, prints, and ephemera. For example, untitled illustrations in art books are often titled on postcards.
Nellie Deluth
Many, many of Harrison Fisher's illustrations have alternate titles. One illustration has four different titles determined by the medium on which it was printed: Behind the Scenes, The Make-up, Preparing to Conquer, and Nellie Deluth. This leads to some confusion among collectors. Some collectors invent their own titles when selling untitled prints by Harrison Fisher or list all known titles.

Illustration with 4 Different Titles
Preparing to Conquer, The Make-up,
Behind the Scenes, or Nellie Deluth

Yet Some Men Prefer the Mountains
But the titles that do exist for many of Harrison Fisher's illustrations often bring a deeper meaning to the illustration than they might otherwise have with the image alone. For instance, one illustration portrays a man and woman on a beach carving intertwining hearts in the sand. The title of the illustration is "The Shifting Sands". The title implies the sudden changes that matters of the heart can take. The title reminds the viewer that the seashore may change at any time. In this way, many of the titles bring added meaning to an illustration.

Yet Some Men Prefer the Mountains

There is no information available on whether Harrison Fisher entitled his own illustrations. Probably the images were entitled by the publishing house that handled them.
Harrison Fisher also contributed to the development of the American poster when he designed posters for the government during World War I. The American poster was first developed in the 1890s for circus advertisements. Fisher, with Howard Chandler Christy, Edward Penfield, Will H. Bradley, Maxfield Parrish, and James Montgomery Flagg, joined the Division of Pictorial Publicity headed by Charles Dana Gibson. Four of Harrison Fisher's drawings were selected by the government to be printed on posters, bus and window cards to publicize the United States war effort. (Welch 22) Three of the posters were for the Red Cross including: 'Have You Answered the Red Cross Christmas Roll Call?' and 'Join the Red Cross-- All You Need Is a Heart and a Dollar'. Fisher went on to illustrate the dust jacket and frontispiece for a 1918 novel The War Dog with royalties given to the American Red Cross. (Welch 23)

Harrison Fisher's work is closely associated with the American Beauty. His continuous stream of cover girls for Cosmopolitan covers and art books helped shape the early twentieth century American conception of feminine beauty. His search for models was highly publicized in a number of publications. By all accounts, Fisher was a renowned critic of beauty. Fisher has been compared to the figure Paris that appears in Greek mythology: "According to legend, Paris was chosen by Zeus to determine which of three goddesses was the most beautiful. " (Britannica) Like Paris, Harrison Fisher was seen as an expert judge of beauty. Fisher presided, for a decade and a half, over a never-ending beauty pageant. Fisher "served as judge in beauty contests more than any other man." (Welch 23)
Sunbonnet Girl
In 1910, in what was no doubt a celebrity stunt, Harrison Fisher undertook a nation-wide model search for "the real American beauty". His find "dominated a full page in The New York Times on January 22, 1911, with an article titled 'Harrison Fisher Discovered a New Type of Beauty.'" (Skinner 9) His discovery was a young Californian named Rita Rasmussen whom Fisher named the "Girl of the Golden West". Her face was captured in two illustrations, Sunbonnet Girl and Maud Muller (or Bewitching Maiden).

Sunbonnet Girl
Model Rita Rasmussen - "Girl of the Golden West"

Other models employed by Fisher include Olive Thomas, Lucy Miller, Margery Allwork, and Dorothy Gibson (no relation to Charles Dana Gibson). "Later in his life, Fisher claimed to have painted no fewer than 15,000 women." (Skinner 10) They certainly numbered in the thousands: "During his career, he produced more than 2,000 drawings." (Welch 17)

Harrison Fisher complained in several interviews that he had grown tired of painting the glamorous, elegant beauty. He told Vogue in November, 1909,

"The public cries for them. Someday I am going to give to the world, that has been too kind to me for the good of my art, a chance to show whether it is my work or the subject which appeals. I am going to paint some dear old women and men. That is what I really wish to do."
and in the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express, "I'd prefer to put cows, or maybe sea lions on magazine covers for a change." (Skinner 8) But unfortunately, Harrison Fisher's style and subject were typecast-- he drew variations on the same world and the same girl for 25 more years until his death.

Harrison Fisher died January 19 in 1934, at the age of 57, the day after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. His death certificate lists the cause of death as chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver, with a contributing condition of edema of the lungs. In his last will and testament he left his estate of $268,805 to his companion and secretary Kate Clements. Ms. Clements and Harrison Fisher were companions, who, however, never maintained a household together. Harrison Fisher never married.

Among the museums Harrison Fisher's paintings hang in today are: the De Young Museum, San Francisco; the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York; the Davenport Museum of Art, Iowa; the Mead Art Museum, Massachusetts; The Art Museum, New Jersey; Oakland Museum, California; and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. (Welch 27) Harrison Fisher was voted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1997. He has left an indelible mark on the American school of illustration, his times, and the early twentieth-century depiction of the American Beauty.


What is it that distinguishes Harrison Fisher's illustrations from any other artists? What makes them so unique? His portraits and illustrations capture the imagination. They represent an ideal that does not exist. The look of the models themselves is immediately recognizable as his. Howard Chandler Christy and Charles Dana Gibson have styles that are similar, but cannot easily be mistaken for Harrison Fisher's work. Will Grefe has the most similar style, in my opinion. The defined angle of the jawline on Harrison Fisher's subjects is a chief characteristic of his work. The mandible is drawn in a raised or steeper angle than it is in the human anatomy.

The Rose

Characteristically Raised Mandible
or Jawline of Harrison Fisher's Models

This angle was a stylistic feature of Fisher's work; photographs of his models show normal jawlines. The wide-spaced eyes and short nose are also a characteristic of his work. The watercolors he chose as a medium complement his artistic style and subjects. There is a demure and sometimes proud quality to many of his subjects. He was a master at capturing nuanced details-- shading and folds of draped fabric and the sumptuousness of clothing. However, the sum of those individual characteristics do not adequately resolve the uniqueness of his style. There is something indefinably captivating about his work. His illustrations are a kinder, softer representation of substance.

I was watching a special on PBS on another illustrator Norman Rockwell a few days ago. In the documentary Rockwell said he, "Paint[s] life as I would like it to be." Like Norman Rockwell, Harrison Fisher composed a world with his pictures that contains no sordid ugliness, no cynicism: a world that didn't exist, but comprised a beautiful ideal. Harrison Fisher's illustrations do not provide a mirror for the world of the 1910s and 20s nor a social commentary. With his brush, he drew forth an elegant, romantically perfect world that appealed to young women everywhere. I have always been reminded of a Technicolor 50s musical when I look at Harrison Fisher's work. Harrison Fisher's world is complete in itself. It is glorious propaganda for its age.


Works Cited and Consulted

Grey, Alexandra. "Has Your Face a Better Side? The Views of Harrison Fisher." 1920. Date Accessed: December 2, 1999.

Harrison Fisher, A Remembrance. Date Accessed: August 25, 2011.

Johnson, Keith. "The Works of Harrison Fisher" Date Accessed: 05 Oct 1998

Mashburn, Joseph. The Super Rare Postcards of Harrison Fisher with Price Guide. Colonial House. Alexander, NC: 1992.

Skinner, Tina. Harrison Fisher: Defining the American Beauty. A Schiffer Book for Designers and Collectors. Arglen, PA: 1999.

Welch, Naomi. The Complete Works of Harrison Fisher, Illustrator. Dai Nippon Printing Company. La Selva Beach, CA: 1999.

Artists' Biographies. "Harrison Fisher Biography." Date Accessed: 12 Mar 1998.

"The Creator of the Harrison Fisher Girl." Ladies' Home Journal. February, 1910

Development of the Poster - Infoplease.com Date Accessed: 07 Dec 1999.

"Dorothy Gibson." Date Accessed: 02 Dec 1999.

"Have You Answered the Red Cross Roll Call?" Red Cross Organization. Date Accessed: 03 Dec 1999

"Harrison Fisher Biography" Date Accessed: 01 Dec 1999.

"Paris" Britannica.com Date Accessed: 03 Dec 1999

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I appreciate your feedback or comments on my term paper.

Melissa Speed, 2000-11
Updated August 25, 2011.