Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art

Loretto, PA



Following is an essay titled "Pennsylvania Painters and the Roots of Realism," by Judith Hansen O'Toole, Director, Westmoreland Museum of American Art, reprinted with permission of the author. The essay is excerpted from the 2001 exhibition catalogue titled ".Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism in Pennsylvania Painting, 1950-2000." (See our illustrated article, Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism in Pennsylvania Painting, 1950-2000 (3/30/01), covering the exhibition at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, with links to over 30 other selected articles on Pennsylvania representational art from this magazine.) The exhibition and catalogue was organized by a curatorial committee including Michael A. Tomor, PhD, chair, Executive Director, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art; John Vanco, Director, Erie Art Museum; and Bruce Katsiff, Director/CEO, James A. Michener Art Museum. The ISBN number of the 71-page catalogue is 0-9700995-3-3. The catalogue contains two introductory essays, essays on 22 artists, artists' biographies, and numerous color illustrations.


Pennsylvania Painters and the Roots of Realism

by Judith Hansen O'Toole


Realism is as old an artistic tradition as this young country has to offer and, in all its many incarnations, has long had a dominant influence on the artists, educational institutions, collectors, and museums of Pennsylvania.

America's first museum and college of art began as one institution, with the founding of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1805. A decade earlier, Philadelphia, in its bid to be capital of the nation, had staged the first international exhibition of art in the country. Called the Columbianum Exhibition, this event encouraged patrons and artists alike by creating a venue in which to buy and sell work. Thomas Sully, a prominent portraitist of the early 19th century, was so impressed by Philadelphia's cultural prominence that he referred to the city as the "Athens of America." On the far Western edge of the state, Pittsburgh too began developing prestigious venues for contemporary exhibitions with the founding of the Carnegie Institute and the initiation of the Carnegie International Exhibition in I895. From the late 18th century to the early 20th, Pennsylvania produced some of the finest American artists of the day, among them Benjamin West, the: Peale family, Thomas Eakins, John Sloan, Mary Cassatt, and Andrew Wyeth.

The roots of Realism can be traced back to the 18th-century painters Gustavus Hesselius and George Catlin, who eschewed the refined European classical tradition to paint their subjects -- native Americans -- truthfully and realistically and, in the process, created ethnographically important images. Benjamin West, the great expatriate who served as living proof that an American-born artist could meet European standards, trained generations of Americans in the grand manner of the English Royal Academy. Charles Willson Peale -- the head of a remarkable clan of lively and diverse artists who were all proponents of Realism -- founded the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which gave Philadelphians access to collections and aspiring artists an opportunity to study in their own country. Thomas Eakins, the most important teacher to emerge from the Academy, was a devoted Realist: in pursuit of its ideals, he made a series of photographic studies of figures in motion, championed life drawing over the use of antique casts, and even urged students to witness medical procedures to learn about human anatomy. His devotion would cost him his job when, at the height of the Victorian era, he tore the loincloth off a male model in a class of male and female students. Out in western Pennsylvania, George Hetzel, who was trained in Düsseldorf and inspired by the French Barbizon painters, was the leader of a school of plein air landscape painters and the founder of the Pittsburgh School of Design for Women in l865. Even women got into the act: two Pennsylvanians -- Mary Cassatt, from Pittsburgh, and Cecilia Beaux, from Philadelphia -- became important American artists whose work, although very different in style, was grounded in portraiture. By the early decades of the 20th century, Bucks County produced a brand of Impressionism that differed from its French counterpart in its firmer grasp of the image and unwillingness to let light and color overtake the identifiable object.

By the mid-20th century, Realism was passé, scorned by an art world absorbed by Abstract Expressionism, a style heralded as the first original American art movement. Although the discussion regarding the "Americanist" nature of Abstract Expressionism is too lengthy to raise here, it can be said that it was incontestably the first native school of painting to have an international impact and to establish New York as the center of the art world. But the signs that New York would emerge as the world's art capital were already in the air at the beginning of the 20th century when the group known as the Philadelphia Five (John Sloan, Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn) came to town. Joined by three compatriots (Charles Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies, and Ernest Lawson), the Five became the Eight and proceeded to rock the New York art world with their particular brand of Realism. Even one of the century's great abstractionists, Franz Kline, hailed from Pennsylvania: long after leaving his home state for the mecca of New York City, he continued to draw inspiration from the anthracite region around Wilkes-Barre. But many of the artists of Pennsylvania would continue to follow the tenets of Realism into the latter half of the 20th century, and the opportunity to examine their contribution is, in the broad view, overdue.

A consortium of museum staff throughout the Commonwealth chose the 22 artists whose works are included here: Bo Bartlett, Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Diane Burko, Ray DeFazio, Martha Erlebacher, Rob Evans, Benedict Gibson, Sidney Goodman, Barkley Hendricks, Ben Kamihira, Harry Koerner, Richard Mayhew, Sarah McEneaney, John Moore, Alice Neel, Peter Paone, Philip Pearlstein, Nclson Shanks, Andy Warhol, Neil Welliver, Andrew Wyeth, and James Wyeth. All these artists reached their mature style after 1950 and were either born in Pennsylvania, educated here, or have been long-time residents. Further, the artlstlc styles represented demonstrate the extraordinary diversity to be found within the "quantifier" of Realism -- from the hyper-realism associated with the Photorealist movement, to the fantastic and symbolic realism drawn from the subconscious, to the simple distillation of "representationalism" into the bold design elements of form and color. It is the hope of the exhibition's organizers that "Artists of the Commonwealth" will demonstrate the commitment of the artists represented to Pennsylvania's Realist tradition -- even in the face of overwhelming critical absorption with abstraction during the second half of the 20th century.


Read more about the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/2/11

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