Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on April 22, 2009 with permission of the author and the Woodmere Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Woodmere Art Museum:
The Pennsylvania Impressionist Legacy
by Michael Schantz
One of the important traditions at the Woodmere Art Museum is the encouragement and support it gives to local artists through an active exhibition schedule and art acquisition program. It has done so since its founding in 1940. Without question, some of the most memorable exhibitions ever assembled at Woodmere where those dedicated to the so-called Pennsylvania Impressionists, and likewise some of the finest pieces in Woodmere's permanent collection are by these same artists. While largely associated with Bucks County, and in particular with New Hope, Pennsylvania, these painters were no less firmly rooted in the city of Philadelphia. Some of their outstanding representatives studied and taught in its renowned art schools, lived in the city before moving to more the bucolic settings to prosecute their "plein air" compositions, and relied on the patronage of local collectors. The Woodmere Art Museum's association with this group -- as an exhibiting venue, as a source for sales of works, and as a crossroads for artists and audiences spanning urban, suburban, and more far-flung country settings -- was the most substantial of any institution of the time.
Beginning in 1940 and for several decades thereafter, Woodmere became the premier showcase for the Pennsylvania Impressionists. Indeed, no other venue featured these artists with such frequency and enthusiasm. In addition to the Museum's many annual juried and members' exhibitions that these artists participated in, Woodmere hosted major shows focusing in-depth on this circle in 1946, 1968, 1993, and 1998s. More significant still were the solo and two-person exhibitions that provided audiences more comprehensive information on individual artists.
With modest acquisition funds, Woodmere also purchased works from many of these exhibitions, helping to sustain these artists when other institutions were looking elsewhere. Gifts from private collectors further augmented these purchases, and two magnificent donations from descendants of artists have afforded the Museum unparalleled strength in works by Walter Elmer Schofield and Herbert Pullinger. Over six decades the Museum was able to acquire one of the most substantial collections of Pennsylvania Impressionist art in any public institution, a collection that continues to be the broadest in its coverage of this chapter of this region's artistic history.
With each exhibition Woodmere assembled archives of autographic material and ephemera related to the Pennsylvania Impressionists. The existence of this archival trove is due in no small measure to long-time Woodmere curator Edith Emerson, who developed a strong personal bond with many of the Impressionists and maintained regular correspondence with them over a period of thirty-five years. A talented artist in her own right, Emerson entered the Pennsylvania Academy in 1912 and studied with Cecilia Beaux, Hugh Breckenridge, Daniel Garber, and Emil Carlson, among others. She was affiliated with Woodmere from its inception, attending the Museum's first board meeting on February 21, 1940, and her association continued until shortly before her death in 1981. She was rigorous in her attention to preserving documents related to Woodmere's interaction with regional artists, affording today's scholars of American art a goldmine of primary sources to understand the history and significance of the Pennsylvania Impressionist legacy.
More often than not, the Pennsylvania Impressionist exhibitions were large and comprehensive presentations that filled Woodmere's massive rotunda gallery. Typically these exhibitions included not just the Impressionists of Bucks County but also other artists from the Philadelphia area. One of first Pennsylvania Impressionists to be featured at Woodmere the year after its founding was Carroll Sargent Tyson, Jr., who lived in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, not far from the Museum. A gifted painter, Tyson studied with William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Like many from the area, he regularly escaped the heat and humidity of Philadelphia summers with visits to Maine, where The Mouth of Somes Sound was painted.
Daniel Garber's name, unlike Tyson's, is instantly synonymous with Pennsylvania Impressionism. A major exhibition of Garber's works, billed as a thirty-five year retrospective of his accomplishments, was presented by Woodmere in November 1942, predating a similar retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The show featured seventy-five works, including some of the artist's most famous paintings, such as Mother and Son, William Langson Lathrop, Mending, and Tanis. It was from this landmark exhibition that Woodmere purchased Spring Valley Inn, a painting that depicts a popular eating establishment still in operation near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Garber covered the canvas with a layer of feathery strokes of pigment that create a vibrating and colorful surface evoking a feeling of scintillating light and atmosphere. Frank Jewett Mather, an early writer on the Pennsylvania Impressionist movement, wrote in 1927 about Garber's artistic facility and noted that ''None of our landscapists...has caught so completely the very quiver of sultry weather." Indeed, Garber's representation of the incomparable heat and humidity that pervade the Philadelphia environs in July and August was exceptional. As his biographer Kathy Foster wrote in her monograph on the artist for a 1980 exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy, "Garber was at his best at mid-day in summertime; springtime found him sluggish, winter inspired him only occasionally, sunrise and sunset moved him even less."
A memorial exhibition mounted in November of 1945 for Walter Elmer Schofield featured thirty-five canvases, including three of the largest and finest works he ever painted, now in Woodmere's permanent collection; one was purchased and two were subsequent benefactions given in 1949 by the artist's family in appreciation for Woodmere's contribution to their father's legacy. Surely one of the most robust artists associated with the Pennsylvania Impressionist movement, Schofield was proud of his ability to brace against adverse weather conditions in order to execute his very large canvases, often in one sitting.
The Woodmere's March Snow is one of the artist's largest and best examples of his classic winter scenes. According to author Dr. Thomas Folk in his monograph, the painting was probably painted in the Brandywine River Valley. Schofield often painted in the neighborhood areas surrounding Philadelphia, as far west as Norristown and as far south as Chadds Ford. It was probably painted outdoors, directly from nature with no preliminary studies. This method of completing very large snowscapes on the spot is similar to [Edward] Redfield's approach, for Redfield exploited plein air painting to its limit....Although Schofield was not quite as dedicated as Redfield to this method, he nevertheless completed -- out-of-doors -- canvases larger than Redfield.
In 1902 Schofield took up residence in St. Ives, Cornwall, England, from which he returned annually to America during the winter months to paint his masterful renditions of the Pennsylvania countryside. His Cornish coast scenes, however, are equally compelling, and Morning Tide -- Coast of Cornwall and Trenwith -- Cornish Farm are very fine examples. The latter in particular has been singled out as "one of the artist's most spectacular Cornish village scenes. Compositionally, it is somewhat unusual. In this panoramic view, he combines his usual cluster of small buildings in the foreground with a bird's eye view of the coast in the background."
In 1946, the year following the Schofield memorial exhibition, Woodmere assembled a very large show featuring a selection of Bucks County work, including more than one hundred pieces by such artists as Edward W. Redfield, John Ramsey Conner, John Folinsbee, Paul Froelich, Frederick W. Harer, Harry Leith-Ross, and George W. Sotter. An artist oddly not included in the Bucks County show was Walter Emerson Baum. He would, however, have his own one-person show at Woodmere in 1948, which included thirty-five paintings of regional scenes and figure subjects. Concurrently with this exhibit, the Museum mounted a loan exhibition of American art that included Robert Spencer and William Lathrop, the founder of the New Hope art colony.
One of the aspects of Woodmere's physical facility that appealed to painters of large-scale canvases such as Schofield was Woodmere's main gallery, a massive, two-story, rotunda-shaped venue that readily accommodates the largest of paintings. Other artists, however, found the space daunting. When Impressionist George Sotter was offered a one-man show in 1950, he had serious doubts that he could fill its cavernous expanse. In a letter to curator Edith Emerson he admitted his trepidation: "I will get down to the gallery very shortly to again check on the vast space I am to fill, at times I am frightened by it, but I shall do my best." To fill the space Sotter supplemented his paintings with cartoons for stained-glass commissions. In all, forty-five works were placed on display, including Old Mill -- Neshaminy Creek, a splendid nocturnal scene purchased by Woodmere from the artist in 1947.
Sotter was an active participant in the affairs of Woodmere and died on May 6, 1953, just hours before he was scheduled to attend an Exhibition Committee meeting at the Museum. On his reply card concerning his attendance at the meeting, Sotter wrote, "Don't know how I can do it -- but I will try." Curator Edith Emerson added a note to his file just next to his post card: "He always kept his word." Sotter's wife, Alice E. M. Bennet, remained active at Woodmere long after her husband's death, and was a Woodmere member until her own death in 1967 at the age of eighty-five at the Sotter home in Holicong, Pennsylvania.
Another artist especially close to Woodmere during his career was John Folinsbee, who had a comprehensive show during the winter of 1956. More than forty of his paintings were put on display in the main gallery, including eleven of his portrait and figural works. The remainder were equally divided between landscapes and seascapes. Folinsbee's fondness for the Woodmere, for Edith Emerson, and for the Museum's recognition of living artists were expressed in a 1961 letter to Emerson in which he reminisced about his earlier experiences with the Museum:
Folinsbee's sentiments were shared by many others who exhibited at Woodmere, and similar testimonials are to be found in abundance in the Museum's archives.
One of Folinsbee's good friends, Harry Leith-Ross had his own solo exhibit in 1958, consisting of sixteen oil paintings, nine watercolors, and four conté drawings. Leith-Ross first met Folinsbee in Woodstock, New York, the site of the Art Student League's summer school, where they studied under Birge Harrison. A National Academician and member of New York's Salmagundi Club, Leith-Ross moved to New Hope in 1935. He, too, was active at Woodmere for years and won, among other honors, the 1944 purchase prize at the Museum's annual juried exhibition. From his 1958 exhibition Woodmere purchased the night scene The Fair, truly one of his finest paintings.
Edward Willis Redfield, perhaps the most acclaimed of all the Pennsylvania Impressionists, was the subject in 1959 of one of Woodmere's most distinguished one-man shows. His exhibition had the further distinction, crucial to scholarship, to have been documented photographically, thanks to the artist's daughter-in-law, Dorothy, who took a series of color installation photographs that are now part of Woodmere's archive. In addition to more than seventy canvases, Redfield's exhibit included a set of six Windsor fan-backed chairs fashioned by the artist, as well as two of his hooked rugs. The foreword to the exhibition's catalogue was written by well-known illustrator and distinguished writer Henry C. Pitz, whose glowing comments leave little doubt about his enthusiasm for Redfield's work and for the pivotal role the artist played in the Pennsylvania Impressionist movement. Of his paintings, and the school in general, Pitz wrote:
From this show, Woodmere purchased Redfield's Late Afternoon, one of the artist's classic, panoramic winter scenes, showing a vista from Mike Mullins Hill across the Delaware River to New Jersey at Center Bridge, where Redfield settled in 1898. In the same year as Redfield's Woodmere retrospective, Henry Pitz also published an essay on the painter in The American Artist. Accompanying his article was a reproduction of a view quite similar to that of Late Afternoon and appropriately titled Mike Mullins Hill. Of the painting, Pitz noted:
Edward Redfield's paintings have always had a popular appeal, and the public's enthusiasm for their imagery and style has been repeatedly rejuvenated through periodic exhibitions. His Late Afternoon remains to this day one of the most popular and treasured works in the Woodmere Art Museum permanent collection.
The nationwide reawakening of interest in the Pennsylvania Impressionists, fueled in part by subsequent exhibitions organized by or with the help of Woodmere, has amply vindicated the Museum's longstanding commitment to these artists. The story of that rapport and of the art and archival collections that resulted will someday require a publication considerably longer than this one. In the meantime, periodic reminders such as the current exhibition provide essential, evocative glimpses of the tenor and energy of one of the most important chapters of American art.
1 Daniel Garber in 1942 and 1998, Walter Elmer Schofield in 1945, Henry B. Snell in 1947, Walter Baum in 1948, George Sotter in 1950, John Folinsbee in 1956, Harry Leith-Ross in 1958, Edward W. Redfield in 1959, Joseph T. Pearson, Jr., in 1943 and 2001, Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., in 1949, Mary Townsend Mason in 1951 and 1964, Martha Walter in 1955 and 2002, Ben Solowey in 1958 and 1979, Antonio Martino in 1982, Charles Rosen in 1983, Paulette Van Roekens in 1944, 1966, and 1987, Arthur Meltzer in 1944, 1970, and 1983, Alice Kent Stoddard in 1951, and Herbert Pullinger in 1940, 1959, 1983, 1987, and 1996.
2 Frank Jewett Mather, "The American Spirit in Art," The Pageant of America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927), p. 132.
3 Kathleen A. Foster, Daniel Garber, 1880 - 1958 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1980), p. 20.
4 Thomas Folk, Walter Elmer Schofield: Bold Impressionist (Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: Brandywine River Museum, 1983), pp. 18, 20.
5 Ibid, p. 25.
6 Letter, George Sotter to Edith Emerson, 31 August 1950, artist file, Woodmere Art Museum.
7 Curator's note, Sotter artist file, Woodmere Art Museum.
8 Letter, John Folinsbee to Edith Emerson, 18 April 1961, artist file, Woodmere Art Museum.
9 Henry C. Pitz, Exhibition of Painting and Crafts by Edward W. Redfield (Philadelphia: Woodmere Art Museum, 1959), n.p.
10 Henry C. Pitz, "Edward Redfield, Painter of Place and Time," American Artist, June 1958, pp. 29 - 33.
About the author
Michael William Schantz is The Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia, a position he has held since 1981. Dr. Schantz received his M.A. in art from San Diego State University and his Ph.D. in art history (emphasis: American art and history of prints; dissertation title: "James David Smillie and the Evolution of American Printmaking") from UCLA. He has curated over 100 exhibits while at Woodmere, and has authored numerous articles and exhibition catalogues, serves on several boards and committees, and is an accreditation reviewer for the American Association of Museums.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on April 22, 2009, with permission of the author and the Woodmere Art Museum, which was granted to TFAO on April 1, 2009.
This article appeared in the September - October 2005 issue of American Art Review and pertains to an exhibition, The Pennsylvania Impressionist Legacy, which was on view at the Woodmere Art Museum through January 8, 2006.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Diane Pastella of the Woodmere Art Museum and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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