Harrison Fisher was born in Brooklyn, New York on July 27, 1875. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all artists. Harrison Fisher began to draw almost as soon as he could hold a pencil. Fisher was a talented illustrator; his work began appearing in newspapers when he was only sixteen when the San Francisco Call newspaper began buying his sketches. During the 1890s, Harrison studied at the San Francisco Art Association and the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art. Like so many artists who come to the city of their hopes, Harrison Fisher began by taking a number of his drawings under his arm and showing them to various art editors. Soon he became a staff artist for the San Francisco Call, and later for the San Francisco Examiner, one of the largest newspapers in a chain owned by William Randolph Hearst.
The multiplicity of magazines and the increasing use of illustrations in books in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries opened a field for the young artist that brought rich rewards in fame as well as in more material ways. With the invention of the half-tone and the line etching process a way was opened for the greatest freedom in technique, and as soon as it became possible by means of a series of plates to reproduce drawings in color, there was no longer any reason why the artist could not do his work in any medium he preferred.
Fisher made drawings of accidents, street scenes of all sorts, caricatures, portrait sketches of distinguished men and beautiful women, and the thousand things that helped make the late 1890s newspaper a pictorial review of the passing days. Harrison Fisher was one of the young men of the day who helped in giving artistic distinction to the first years of the Saturday Evening Post of Philadelphia, and in its pages appeared many of his early drawings, including those for Harold Frederic’s story, The Market Place, which brought him fame. For a number of years he was a constant contributor to all of the leading magazines. In 1897, Fisher transferred to New York City, and within weeks became a staff artist for Puck Magazine.
In the early 1900s, Harrison Fisher developed a particular fancy for drawings dealing especially with well-dressed and well-groomed young American men and women. For years the Gibson girl was the accepted ideal type, and her counterfeit personage might be found in the room of nearly every college girl from Maine to California. Fisher made a name for himself in the history of American illustration due to his talent in painting these beautiful women. His "Fisher Girl" and, more specifically, his "American Girl", became the epitome of beauty in America during the first quarter of the 20th century.
Fisher’s well-bred and healthy-minded American Girl was delightfully free from pose; mistress of herself as she looked out upon the world with an assurance born of the realization that she was an accepted ornament of society. The Fisher young women were not show girls, dressmakers, models, or millinery exhibits, but the sort often associated with a May afternoon walk on upper Fifth Avenue or a day at the Country Club. She was feminine and beautiful but also independent and strong.
Antique Harrison Fisher prints are sought after by collectors and interior designers. Reproductions of Fisher’s “American Girl” are readily available and make a charming and affordable addition to any room décor. Many of Fisher’s designs are also featured in stationary and greeting cards today.
A conversation with the great American illustrator and
noted magazine cover artist. [Published in 1927]
Harrison Fisher said, "It has been, since 1900, my job
to find beauty, catch it on a canvas and serve it up to an
insatiable magazine public. . . I first looked for it in the
faces of murderers and cutthroats, when, as a boy of
seventeen, I drew sketches in the courtrooms of San
Francisco for a local newspaper. And because sometimes,
surprisingly, I found it, I was content with the seventeen
dollars in my weekly envelope."
"My father, Hugo Anton Fisher,
was an established painter of landscapes in California, and
his father, too, had been a painter. My brother Melville
took to landscapes and I to portraits."
Harrison Fisher said, "My father, Hugo Anton Fisher,
was an established painter of landscapes in California, and
his father, too, had been a painter. My brother Melville
took to landscapes and I to portraits."
"In 1897, when I was just
twenty, I came to New York to try my hand at the magazine
game. The artist's New York of those days was very different
from the New York of today. The field then was extremely
restricted. There were no girl covers, and most of the
magazines used illustrations very sparingly, if at all."
Harrison Fisher said, "One of the kindest editors I
met in those days was William Curtis Gibson, art editor of Puck, who is now art editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. He
bought my sketches when he could, and told me how to better
them. Then I had a lucky break. A
feature writer I knew suggested my name to S. S. McClure,
editor and founder of McClure's magazine, and I was given my first
commission. A magnificent one it was, too — to travel over
Europe with the feature writer, illustrating his travel
sketches as we went. I walked on air. This meant that my
fame and fortune were made. I wrote to my happy father to
tell him that I had arrived."
"I hadn't. We took a splendid
trip with expenses paid, and I brought back a portfolio of
pictures I considered masterpieces. But for some reason the
magazine rejected the feature writer's copy, and my beloved
sketches went into the discard too. Perhaps they still lie
in some old dusty file of McClure's, hidden from the light. Possibly it is just as
well, for I have learned a lot about sketching since then.
However, the fact that I had been given such an assignment
gave me some prestige. I got more orders, and was able to
afford other journeys abroad."
Harrison Fisher said, "It was in 1904, when I had
begun to do a good deal of magazine work and my checks were
larger, that I found the bald-headed girl who shaped my
destiny in the magazines. She was a peasant in the south
of France who had just recovered from a siege of typhoid
fever which cost her all her hair. To hide her
distressingly naked scalp, her mother had tied a wide
ribbon band around her head and finished it off with a
towering bow in front."
"The effect was piquant. I
sketched it, combined it with the face of an American girl
and sent the picture to the Saturday Evening Post. To the
best of my knowledge, that was the first large head of a
girl ever used as sole decoration on a magazine cover. When
I came home later, the front-bow hair ribbon was the
prevailing style of head-dress all over the country."
Harrison Fisher said, "That was one of the few times
that I had a chance to create a hair style to suit
myself. I liked to draw that front bow, and for months I
drew it to my heart's content."
"We artists are often asked, “Do
you actually create modes in hair-dressing, or do you merely
popularize them?" I should say the latter is nearer the
truth. Our minds are close to Paris, where styles originate,
and when we find a new, becoming mode of hair-dressing we
paint it. Since our pictures hang on all the newsstands of
the country, I suppose hundreds of thousands of women are
influenced by them. Many of the styles of
hair-dressing I have painted, however, I have not
considered universally becoming."
"During the period dating from
the pompadour to the shingle bob, I have become something of
a coiffure authority. There has never been a style I liked
better than the bob. The first coiffure I ever drew
was one of those Spanish-American-War pompadours, built up
like a stone wall over a wire frame or a wad of cotton. It
made the face seem small and insignificant, and was most
unsatisfactory from a painter's standpoint."
Harrison Fisher said, "After that came a time of huge
ear-rolls, and artificial puffs placed on top of the head. Then there were the bangs and
the psyche knot."
"During the Floradora period,
when the girls wore one long curl over their left shoulder,
my studio used to be littered with these single curls, in
auburn, black, brown and gold. A model chose her curl as
soon as she arrived for a sitting. I used to love to draw
those curls — they broke up the neckline so well. In 1915 came the "figure eight"
and lightly curled front hair. And in 1920 the fan-shaped
head-dress, built up either over a "rat" or by "roughing"
the hair, recalled the hard artificiality of the pompadour.
We artists gnashed on teeth!"
Harrison Fisher explained, "But relief was in sight. Along
about 1921 the bob struck America full force. I suppose all
of us older folk got a shod when we saw the shining braids
and curb coming off in handfuls. And a good many of us set
up a row about the morality of bobbed hair and so forth and
"But it wasn't very long before
we artists began to see beauty in the new style. It was
simple, healthful and youthful. Above all, it was modern.
It suited the faces and clothes and the philosophy of modern
"I think I like the sleek,
well-modeled shingle better than any other coiffure have
painted. But I have not found magazine editors so
enthusiastic about it. The bald-headed woman, as I
have remarked ruled, gave me my start. After the sale of her
picture, I began to get plenty of cover orders. I
freelanced for several years."
Harrison Fisher said, "Then I had a stroke of fortune
that influenced my entire career. Bill Gibson had gone over
from Puck to Cosmopolitan magazine. He still liked my work,
and in 1907 I began to sell to him again. The readers liked
my covers, and in 1910 I made an exclusive contract to paint
for Cosmopolitan. As the magazine has grown in
quality and strength, under the editorship of Ray Long, my
girls have appeared regularly each month on its covers, and
people have almost abandoned the old phrase, “Harrison
Fisher girl,” for “Cosmopolitan girl.”
"She had not been easy to
capture, this lovely creature with the wistful, girlish
eyes, whose face, always new, yet never quite the same,
stands for me and for Cosmopolitan. The whole world is an artist’s
stock in trade, and I am pursued by the fear that I may pass
my Cosmopolitan girl in the park or brush against her in the
subway and fail to catch the line, the shade of coloring
that would enrich my next picture of her. I have to carry her beauty back
to the studio with me in my mind’s eye, for I never have the
courage to ask a stranger to pose for me."
Harrison Fisher said, "My search led from New York to
Europe and back again. For American girls — and this is not
intended for the grandstand — are the most beautiful and
best-dressed in the world. After a lifelong quest for
lovely women, I have come back home to stay."
"I could not find in Europe a
single model that my fastidious American public would accept
for its magazine covers. And so I came back to New York,
and in the little model colony of Central Park West I found
the type of the clear-eyed, fresh-skinned creature I have
been doing ever since for Cosmopolitan."
"The Cosmopolitan girl is a
composite picture, of course, drawn from an embarrassment of
riches. Unless a girl has character,
talent and a real liking for work I do not encourage her to
enter the model field, no matter how pretty her face and
figure may be. Merely pretty girls are a drug on the market
in New York. Then, too, the life of the model
is no paradise for leisure and luxury."
Harrison Fisher explained, "The good model makes from
fifty to sixty dollars a week. Once her reputation among
the artists is established, she can count on a full week’s
work. The standard price is five dollars for a three-hour
morning or afternoon — that is, ten dollars a day. But she earns that ten dollars. Posing calls for more than beauty. It requires grace and
flexibility and, in the fiction illustration field, a real
histrionic talent. A girl need not know how to dance, but
she must have the strength and endurance to hold a difficult
dance pose for half an hour without letting the strain show
in face or body. There is no hilarious night
life for the girl who guards her beauty. At the end of the day the model
rushes off to her little kitchenette around the corner to
cook her own dinner, wash and press her silk lingerie and
feed her Persian cat or canary bird."
"After nearly thirty years of
searching for beauty, I suppose I ought to know what beauty
is. Nevertheless, it is impossible to define it in words. To get my idea of beauty,
suppose you watch me choose a model."
Harrison Fisher said, "It is five o'clock of a Tuesday
afternoon, the hour at which the magazine artists receive
prospective models. The girls come up one by one,
announced by a telephone operator downstairs. The first girl steps inside the
door and instinctively makes for the wide shaft of light
from the great north window. She has a round, pink face and
a plump figure. Her features are rather good, and her
coloring is fresh. But her face has no charm. It is flat,
wooden. And so I send her away.
"The second one is a blonde, and
her manner is as brazen as her coloring. I look at her
closely. She has a pretty face, shining hair. But the bold,
forward thrust of her head lacks the elegance and poise
that my cover girls must have. I want girls to be chic; but
they must reflect innate refinement. She will not do."
"The third girl wears a jersey
jumper. She has good features and a brown, freckled skin.
She explains that she is quite a sportswoman, swims, plays
golf, rides. She thinks she might do in an illustration for
some outdoor story. But there's the difficulty! She
looks like a sportswoman. Her muscles are highly developed
and quite visible. She wears flat-heeled shoes that have
thickened her ankles and given her bulging calves. Her
stride is entirely too strong and independent for a magazine
girl. Even for outdoor fiction, the magazine public will
have its women soft. So I turn my thumbs down on
Harrison Fisher explained, "The fourth applicant has good
eyes, a good mouth and a graceful carriage. But her neck is
short and fat, and some one has persuaded her to bob her
hair. The combination is fatal. I like bobbed hair only for
slim, girlish models."
"Number five has a weak chin and
a crooked nose. Number six has every advantage
of beauty, but she cannot hold any given pose for thirty
"The seventh has a long, thin
neck with a perpendicular hollow running down it in back.
Her shingle leaves it naked to the storms of heaven. And so it goes."
"Number eight comes along. She
has eyes a bit too pale in color, hair that might be finer
in texture, a chin line that needs strengthening. But the
authentic flame is there. This girl is beautiful — perhaps not
in the flesh, but in the final canvas I can visualize. I
employ her as a model."
Harrison Fisher stated, "I suppose she goes down to the
lobby with a radiant face. Doubtless the rejected girls will
mutter, 'She is no more beautiful than we.' I don't blame them for their
discontent. Possibly in analysis, this woman is less
beautiful than they. Another man might find her not
beautiful at all. The personal equation makes the
difference. Beauty is as much in the seer
as in the seen. The foremost cover artists of New York swap
models constantly, but the public never recognizes
similarity in their pictures."
Harrison Fisher concluded, "But when I speak of the
personal equation, I mean only the artistic differences
between men. There is generally no personal relationship
between artist and model. It is simply a cold business
proposition. The cover girl must be
feminine, of course. She must stand for youth and purity and
first love — a reminder of every man reader's first sweetheart
and of every woman's self as she used to be."