Inspired by women observed at a snack bar in or near Union Square, Lunch Counter is one of many versions of the subject in Isabel Bishop’s oeuvre. At once familiar and elusive, the scene is imbued with a sense of reality by the details of familiar objects and subtle technique. The scene is of two young women who have paused briefly for lunch at a type of fast-food establishment still common in New York. Standing, they concentrate on eating rather than visiting and are oblivious to the gaze of the viewer. In contrast to domestic genre images common in American art since the mid-nineteenth century, these women are part of the work force outside the home. Bishop stated in 1936 that there was a great discrepancy between contemporary women and their depictions in art: “Traditionally, we show silly people in silly clothes, and the housewife with her hair done up and in a gingham apron. But that is an anachronism. It isn’t true of the modern world.” Bishop hoped to convey her subjects’ potential for overcoming class and gender restrictions.
Bishop made no attempt to show all aspects of a scene or to finish a painting in a traditional manner because she believed that incompleteness could suggest the passage of time. Ironically, Bishop herself constantly reworked her images, taking months to complete a single painting. Bishop’s technique is reflected in the timeless quality of her paintings.