Editor's note: The following article was written in conjunction with the exhibition Refining the Region: the Landscapes of Bayard T. Berndt, on view at the Biggs Museum of American Art November 1, 2013 through February 23, 2014. It was published January 17, 2014 in Resource Library with permission of the author. The Biggs Museum of American Art provided related source material If you have questions or comments regarding the article or related source material, please contact the Biggs Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Refining the Region: The Landscapes of Bayard T. Berndt
by Ryan Grover
Many artists were preoccupied with their usefulness during the economic and political turmoil of early 20th century America. Bayard Taylor "B.T." Berndt (1908-1987) applied his artistic talents to many useful applications to support his family and to advance the cultural life of his beloved Delaware Valley. Painting may have been the largest contribution to his legacy but Berndt was also a gallery owner, patron, local historian, mentor, community organizer, philanthropist as well as a literal and metaphorical "framer" of the Delaware Arts Scene.
Berndt was born and raised in the Brandywine Village of Wilmington. He married a fellow art student, Rita Blatz, and had four children. He helped run Wilmington's first professional fine-art academy and was part owner of the iconic Hardcastle Gallery for over thirty years. A few of his civic accomplishments included fund raising for the building of the Delaware Art Center (now Delaware Art Museum) and the co-founding of the Brandywine Arts Festival. His art is rare, but he exhibited in many of the preeminent regional exhibitions and galleries of the 20th century.
Bayard Berndt's art displays his advocacy of the Regionalist movement that dominated the American art scene for much of the mid-1900s. Artists became useful to their communities by glorifying the subjects of the common person to the level of fine art. Perhaps to distinguish himself from the local importance of the illustration artists that influenced his own art education, he chose landscape as his principal subject. However, he never lost the illustrator's ability to tell good stories.
Bayard Berndt grew up in a time when Wilmington was awash with the talented graduates of its famous school of illustration begun by the "Father of American Illustration", Howard Pyle. What has become known as the Brandywine School is the result of Pyle's rigorous education in storytelling with pictures. Many of his students went on to become famous illustrators, muralists and fine artists. Berndt began his professional art education at the Philadelphia Museum School after graduating from Wilmington High School in 1927. Initially, he studied with Thornton Oakley, an illustrator who attended the Pyle school.
After a short while in Philadelphia, Berndt transferred to the Wilmington Academy of Art in 1929 at the beginning of the Depression. There, he pursued fine-art painting instruction from many other Pyle graduates, such as N.C. Wyeth and Frank Schoonover, as well as American Impressionists and followers of William Merritt Chase, Academy founder Henryette Stadelman Whiteside and her guest teacher Charles Hawthorne. From this versatile artistic background, Berndt emerged as a trained muralist with the research skills of a world-class illustrator and the painterly bravado of an Impressionist at his disposal. According to the artist, his early influences included a variety of artistic styles such as the muralist Diego Rivera, the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton and the plein-air painters of the New Hope School.
After a year's scholarship to paint in Europe, Berndt found regular work as the Executive Secretary and Instructor of the Wilmington Academy of Art, the only full-time staff member. Starting in 1936, he also worked as an illustrator within the Works Progress Administration Index of American Design project for about four months. With no free spaces open within the Mural Arts Project, Berndt soon transferred to the Drama Project creating set designs for weekly theater. In 1939, Berndt received more intensive training in plein-air painting techniques at the Ogonquit Summer School of Drawing and Painting under Charles Herbert Woodbury. This training in academic Impressionism was reinforced the next year with summer classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. World War II rations and the poor art school attendance that resulted from the draft and War Effort forced the Wilmington Academy of Art to shrink into the education department of the Delaware Arts Center (now the Delaware Art Museum). Bayard Berndt joined the War Effort by inspecting welds at the Pusey & Jones shipyard from 1944-46.
?Berndt left the shipyard to become part owner of George Hardcastle and Sons, Inc., a cabinetmaking and picture framing store in business on Shipley Street, Wilmington since 1888. From 1946-79, Berndt transformed Hardcastles into an art supply shop and fine-art framing gallery, a hub of regional artists and patrons. The shop employed many talented local artists, such as frame makers Frances (Frank) Coll and Eugene Cane as well as future Delaware State Poet Laureate and painter E. Jean Lanyon.
Bayard Berndt had a reputation for taking off from Hardcastle Gallery on Tuesdays to paint. By the time he became a gallery owner, Berndt's family was living in a house on the Pennsylvania and Delaware border near Centreville. His studio was also on this property but he spent a great deal of time painting aspects of local landscapes, espousing the Regionalist ideal, literally in his own backyard.
The artist is perhaps best remembered for applying the research skills of an illustrator to his local landscape to create history paintings as well as for the novelty of his aerial perspectives. Many of the artist's most important local subjects include depictions of Henry Clay Village, an early American industrial village from the period of about 1812-1924 and the origin of the Dupont chemical company, the Wilmington waterfront, the Mills of the Brandywine and Christiana Rivers, covered bridges, as well as nearby scenes of Bucks County Pennsylvania, the Eastern Shore of Maryland and hills of Chester County. It has been estimated that there are approximately 500 works by Bayard Berndt currently in private and public hands. The artist's personal records allude to only about 200 oil paintings. This talented painter sold or gifted almost everything he ever made which accounts for his intense local popularity. Berndt's relatively low level of production in comparison to some of his contemporaries, Frank Schoonover counted over 2500 finished paintings and drawings during his own career, may account for his obscurity upon a national stage.
About the author
Ryan Grover is Curator at the Biggs Museum of American Art
About the exhibition Refining the Region: the Landscapes of Bayard T. Berndt
Refining the Region: the Landscapes of Bayard T. Berndt, on view at the Biggs Museum of American Art November 1, 2013 through February 23, 2014, is an exhibition of paintings produced over the course of a sixty-year career. American and local history was a passion and often was a subject of his paintings. He was especially enamored with the beauty and heritage of the Brandywine Valley and often focused on his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. Some of his most recognizable scenes highlight commerce on the local waterways, industrialization, urban street views and covered bridges.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above article was published in Resource Library on January 17, 2014 with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on January 15, 2014.
An edited version of the above article was published in the January - February, 2014 issue of American Art Review.
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