Katharine Steele Renninger: Craft, Commitment, Community

on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum from March 26, 2016 through June 12, 2016.

Section wall labels from the exhibition

Early work
Katharine Steele Renninger, known as Kay, was born in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, in 1925. When she was twelve, her family moved to a farm in Feasterville. Their neighbors were the painters Paulette van Roekens and her husband, Arthur Meltzer, instructors at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) who saw promise in young Kay and encouraged her to attend art school. Renninger often spoke of the importance of her education, writing, "The rather stringent discipline offered at Moore at that time established in me a respect for craftsmanship, the need for keen, accurate observation, and the awareness of professional quality, which is ultimately necessary for any painter." After graduating in 1946, she taught locally before spending six months abroad on a fellowship, filling sketchbooks with confident studies that show a range of approaches as she experimented with perspective, technique, and levels of realism and abstraction in different media.
In 1951 the artist married Jack Renninger and established a dedicated studio practice in their home in Newtown. The young family was transferred to Caracas, Venezuela, in 195 -- a year away that renewed her appreciation for Bucks County. By the time she returned, the wide-open landscapes of her childhood had begun to disappear as suburbia encroached. Her work shifted along with the times, as seen in Bisected, a stylized blend of abstraction and realism that celebrates progress while warning of the effects of industrialization.
Ditch Digger, c. 1955
11 x 14 1/2 in.
James A. Michener Art Museum, Gift of Mary Renninger Rumsey, Sarah Renninger Henriques, Patrick John Renninger, and Katharine Ann Renninger
Renninger's ongoing interest in industrial subjects led to an important turn in her oeuvre shortly after her return from Venezuela. "I saw a ditch digger; it was a marvelous piece of machinery, a series of buckets around a wheel. I had to stop and draw it and that's when I started to zero in on one thing rather than a whole bunch of things." A gouache version of this drawing shows evidence of her training in illustration and the influence of her engineer father. It is both colorful and highly detailed, accurate and stylized. There is no context given, no landscape or even a ground line to locate the machine in space: this is a technical examination of an object that shows both her skill as a draftsman and her enthusiasm for understanding, through drawing, how things work.
Drawing was fundamental to Renninger's practice as a means of observing, understanding, and composing her subjects. The sketchbooks in the Michener Museum's collection, which date from her college years through the mid-1970s when she turned to photography for preparatory studies, reveal her development as an artist, her thought process, and her personality. Graphite sketches show a confident hand and the "keen, accurate observation" that she credited to her studies at Moore; architectural studies and renderings of antique objects are highly detailed, both in line and in the copious notes that accompany them. Along with color specifics, she recorded the direction, quality, and temperature of light and shadow, as well as practical information including street addresses, collector's names, dates, and weather conditions. Within these facts are clear moments of delight: on a 1968 sketch of a home in Martha's Vineyard, a place she returned to often, she noted, "All chairs powder blue!" and "Doors avocado!" Colors were often poetically recorded -- "marvelous mustard" -- and indicated in broad blocks, as if she imagined the final painting in her mind while she sketched.
Process and preparation
Several loose studies from the Michener's collection also reveal how Renninger observed and recorded nuances of color, light, and shadow. Her final painting is equally instructive; in its unfinished state, we can follow her process as she described it:
I draw directly on the canvas with a brush dipped in yellow ochre, often proceeding to raw sienna for corrections, accents, or definition of line -- in dire cases to burnt sienna, when too much confusion exists.
Unlike watercolor, casein allows me to begin working in whatever area interests me the most and work in any given direction . . . once the drawing is established, I either tone the canvas with a wet wash or a loosely applied drybrush scrubbing of color . . . the tooth of the canvas enables me to pull paint over a tone without completely covering the first application.
Much of the work is a series of crosshatching over the initial painting. This results in a simplification of forms and also in subtle gradations of color. It is an excellent way to find and lose edges.
Glass Palette with Paint Samples
James A. Michener Art Museum, Gift of Mary Renninger Rumsey, Sarah Renninger Henriques, Patrick John Renninger, and Katharine Ann Renninger
Renninger preferred to make her own palettes from glass with a paper backing, feeling that commercial models were "chemically inferior." From the late 1940s on, she worked with a narrow and specific range of colors in casein, a milk-based paint that she revered for its dry consistency and meticulous application.
The artist delighted in the challenge of painting windows, with their contrast of materials and surfaces both transparent and reflective. In Congress Hall she cropped out all but a thin margin of yellow brick wall around one tall, narrow window with louvered green shutters. With its scalloped shade offsetting the grid of panes, and the balance of muted colors with black and white elements, Renninger created a stately synecdoche of this historic Cape May hotel. Two Wheeler is a symmetrical view of a trinity of tall, arched gable windows below gingerbread trim. Cut in a pattern of six-pointed stars within circles (the "two wheels" of the title), the trim and its shadow are perfectly aligned, repeating the scrolled effect that contrasts with the horizontal clapboards and truncated diagonals of the roofline.
Typically, Renninger's windows show reflections of the outside, rather than domestic scenes within. One of the few paintings made from the inside looking out, Sally's Attic Window was painted from the home of the artist's daughter. The depicted landscape, however, is not as it appears in reality: Renninger often edited details to serve the composition.
Signs & reflections
Renninger's academic training in design gave her an appreciation for the skill and care required for hand-painted lettering, as in the "ghost sign" she reproduced in Wall Painting, West Chester (opposite). Large plate glass windows offered an additional challenge: "The trick to painting glass," she told a former student, "is not to paint it." Examples of this combined interest abound in this exhibition: Pufferbelly Restaurant; Antiques Sign, Lititz, PA; and Spring Service. All of these paintings feature signage painted on glass, forming a complex layering of information that blurs the difference between inside and out, even as her lettering and line remain sharp. Their respective structures have been cropped out, so that the canvas and the window appear to be one and the same.
"I like to paint things through things," was Renninger's simple explanation for these complex studies. Main and Orange Streets, Nantucket is not a streetscape, as the title suggests, but an image of a window seen through scaffolding. Two cross braces divide the surface and create a shallow shadow across the window, mirroring and fracturing the image across the street. Like Antiques Sign, this image combines Renninger's interest in depicting reflection and in playing with flatness and depth. "I don't know whether I'm here or there," she remarked later about this work.
Variations on a Theme: The Boathouse
Renninger often returned to the same settings to capture shifts in color and light, and to consider different perspectives on a scene. The University of Pennsylvania boathouse was suggested by her son-in-law, an alumnus of the crew team, and became one of her favorite subjects. Created over a six-year period, this grouping of paintings allows us to compare how Renninger used cropping as a strategy to emphasize existing geometries. In One Dozen Shells, the intersection of verticals and horizontals serve as the primary composition, whereas in U Penn Shells with Bikes, Renninger used these same elements to help organize a more complex amount of information. Beyond these formal concerns, this series captures the stillness and anticipation of the empty boathouse, an icon of Philadelphia's architectural and sporting history.
Morrell's Antique Shop
Morrell's Antique Shop in Newtown, where the Renningers lived for five decades, provided source material for over twenty paintings. The earliest, Morrell's Shop, 1958, caught the eye of New York dealer Albert Duveen at the Phillips Mill Community Association's annual juried show that year -- a milestone in her career, according to the artist. Duveen's suggestions about craftsmanship and style steered Renninger toward her mature work, characterized by cropped compositions of objects and architectural details rendered in a muted palette.
This shift is evident in two paintings made thirty years later. In Morrell's with Bunting Renninger used a long, horizontal canvas to locate a rhythm of repeating elements on a narrow view of the shop's exterior. Morrell's Spinning Wheel and Wool Winder shows the contents of one of these crowded display windows layered with the reflection of a group of buildings across the street. She anchored this busy composition with the large circle of the wheel and the square formed by the strands of wool on the winder, backed by repeating and layered grids of windows.
Finding "the character in things"
Antique objects appear in the majority of Renninger's paintings. In Dowery Chairs and Pennsbury Baskets, for example, they suggest a human presence within an interior scene. The tightly cropped compositions of Churn, Warren and Cold Spring Boxes focus our attention on the subject, so that we might "see the character in things" as she did. Renninger was passionate about material culture before that discipline had a name. Preservation and nostalgia did play a role, but her interest was more pragmatic than romantic. Above all, she was drawn to an object's inherent design and the effort it represented to make the ordinary, beautiful: "I paint things that have a sense of integrity, that were made one at a time by someone who really cared. I guess it's a rebellion against the sameness of everything around us today." Whether a hand-painted sign, a biscuit box, a corncrib, or gingerbread trim on a Victorian home, the connection between craft, utility, history, and pride of place is memorialized and celebrated in Renninger's work.
Barns and Exteriors
The grace of old barns and their simple geometries have long drawn artists to Bucks County, and Renninger's images naturally invite a number of art historical comparisons. Where the Pennsylvania Impressionists situated these buildings in the landscape as but one element of a bucolic scene, the modernists, such as Precisionist painter Charles Sheeler, were interested in their compositional forms. Renninger drew from both examples, maintaining an affection for her subjects while looking past them to consider their form and structure.
Rarely did Renninger portray an entire building. Instead, she focused on handcrafted features that represented the character of the larger whole, and cropped her compositions to locate patterns within windows, doors, walls, and decorative trim. When she did take the long view, as in Edgecomb Boatworks, it was in order to present architectural elements in a rhythmic repetition that she further emphasized with flat, frontal perspectives and long, narrow canvases. These were considerate choices that balanced information with invention. Bricks, boards, and other building materials create smaller units within larger blocks of color, and shadows are portrayed as clearly defined shapes. People are suggested but never present; as the artist once stated, "An empty building gives the viewer more possibilities for imagination."
Pattern and repetition
Much of Renninger's work emphasizes pattern and repetition, whether found within a scene, as in Jams and Jellies and Chestertown Porch, or in the object itself. Quilts were of interest to Renninger for their inherent design, their significance as artifacts, and for the challenge of painting in a brighter palette. Three Coverlets on a Ladder shows a display of nineteenth-century "figured and fancy" woven coverlets, with their inscriptions and stylized floral pattern. Like Cold Spring Boxes nearby, the presentation feels almost scientific -- head-on, without cont -- which focuses our attention on the details. In Three Quilts in Cupboard, a stack of quilts becomes an element in a composition that reads more like traditional still life, although for the most part Renninger painted her subjects as she found them, preferring to edit as she worked rather than to contrive an arrangement. Typical of many of her paintings, there is little depth recession; the work appears very flat, so we can read these images as both fragments of a scene and as arrangements of shapes and hues.
Drafting Tools from Renninger's Studio
James A. Michener Art Museum, Gift of Mary Renninger Rumsey, Sarah Renninger Henriques, Patrick John Renninger, and Katharine Ann Renninger
ARC 2008.4
Now part of the museum's archive, Renninger's father's drafting tools were an important keepsake for the artist. "My father was an engineer and he said, 'If you're going to draw a bridge, then that bridge better be able to carry the weight.'"

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