A Bostonian by birth and artistic heritage, Fannie Louise Hillsmith distinguished herself as a painter of Cubist-inspired still lifes and interiors. Like her European counterparts, she used tabletop and furniture arrangements to explore spatial dynamics. In a statement for the landmark 1944 book, Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, Hillsmith described her aesthetic ambition: "I endeavor to find a personal way to express in painting the basic qualities of nature. I try to combine the structural with the intimate and to secure simplicity by using few colors and shapes, to acquire variation by using these in diverse ways throughout the canvas."
Hillsmith’s early art training took place at the conservative Boston Museum School, following in the footsteps of her grandfather Frank Hill Smith, one of its founders. Because of the similarity in their names, the two artists’ work is often confused. Committed to a career in art, Hillsmith relocated to New York, where she took classes at the Art Students League under John Sloan, Alexander Brook, William Zorach, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Vaclav Vytlacil, who emerged as her true mentor. Between 1946 and 1950, Hillsmith worked at Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17 printmaking studio alongside such figures as Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Alexander Calder, and Marc Chagall. At times, her work displayed a surrealist bent and the influence of Paul Klee and, later, Henri Matisse. An active member of the city’s vibrant art scene, Hillsmith showed her work at the Norlyst Gallery owned by Jimmy Ernest and at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, known for its promotion of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning. The noted critics Clement Greenberg and Elaine de Kooning mentioned her work in their reviews.
Josef Albers invited Hillsmith to teach in the 1945 summer session at Black Mountain College, where her students were largely teachers attempting to brush up on their own skills. She was enthralled by the international diversity of the faculty, many of whom spoke French and German at dinner, a fact made poignant by the nightly news report from Europe in the waning days of World War II. Albers’ Saturday seminars in which he critiqued student work were an inspiration for her own teaching.
Hillsmith supported herself by caring for a mentally ill relative and by making toys and jewelry, which were sold at the Museum of Modern Art. She was awarded the 1958 Alumni Traveling Scholarship from the Boston Museum School, which funded a trip abroad to Paris, Vienna, Spain, and England. She taught at Cornell University for the fall semester of 1963. Hillsmith’s work is represented in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Modern Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among other prestigious institutions.