James A. Michener Art Museum
photo by Jeff Hurwitz
The Lenfest Exhibition of Pennsylvania Impressionism
Almost one year after Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest made the remarkably generous gift of 59 outstanding Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings and a $3 million dollar endowment donation to the James A. Michener Art Museum, The Lenfest Exhibition of Pennsylvania Impressionism will open on November 19, 2000.
"The Pennsylvania School of landscape painters, whose leader is Edward Willis Redfield, is our first truly national expression." Guy Péne du Bois, 1915
Mr. Lenfest, one of the country's pioneering cable entrepreneurs, with his wife, began collecting less than a decade ago, focusing on work created in the areas where their companies provided television service. When they built the Suburban Cable complex in Oaks, Pennsylvania, they turned their attention toward the Impressionists and assembled a collection of works by 19 well-known painters whose artistic activity centered on the community of New Hope. "I was enamored with these artists, because I grew up on a farm north of Lambertville, New Jersey, [an area across the Delaware River from New Hope, where many of the paintings were created]," Mr. Lenfest said. (left: Daniel Garber (1880-1958), Springtime in the Village, c. 1917, oil on canvas, 30.5 x 28.5 inches, In trust to The James A. Michener Art Museum, from Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest)
"The landscape painter is of necessity, an outdoors man. . . . For vitality and convincing quality only come to the man who serves, not in the studio, but out in the open where even the things he fights against strengthen him, because you see, nature is always vital, even in her implicit moods, and never denies a vision to the real lover." Walter Elmer Schofield
Housed in the newly remodeled Putman-Smith Gallery, this long-term exhibition represents the heart of the museum's permanent collection, which now includes the finest collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings in public or private hands. Custom exhibition design was created by Josh Dudley, of the internationally acclaimed Ralph Appelbaum Associates, renowned for the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia's new Constitution Center. Mr. Dudley has worked previously with the Michener Art Museum in crafting the Creative Bucks County: A Celebration of Art and Artists exhibition, and the recently opened historic recreation of a prison cell in The Patricia D. Pfundt Sculpture Garden. Fabrication of the exhibit was completed by Hadley Exhibits, Inc., of Buffalo, New York. (left: George W. Sotter, (1879-1953), Mid-January, 1942, oil on canvas, 22 x 26 inches, In trust to The James A. Michener Art Museum, from Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest)
"I believe in nature, to the extent that I get my inspiration to create from nature. Art is something seen and felt, interpreted for the public through the painter's aesthetic sense - plus his technical knowledge to make this understandable -- so that the observer's reaction is what the painter intends. . . . This to me is the function of art - communication." John Fulton Folinsbee
Drawn largely from the Lenfests' gift, as well as the museum's previous holdings, The Lenfest Exhibition of Pennsylvania Impressionism tells the story of the renowned art colony centered in New Hope in the early 20th century. The tale began in 1898, when William Langson Lathrop and Edward Redfield settled in the area to live and paint. Along with the celebrated painter Daniel Garber, these nationally known artists began to attract others to the area, many of whom were students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Although the styles of these painters are distinctive, their work falls under the umbrella of "Pennsylvania Impressionism." They were praised by the noted critic and painter Guy Péne du Bois as "our first truly national expression."
"When I first began to work, most artists used models in studios. What I wanted to do was to go outdoors and capture the look of the scene, whether it was a brook or a bridge, as it looked on a certain day. So I trained myself to set down what I saw in one day, sometimes eight hours or more. I never painted over a canvas again. I think it ruins them. Either you've got it the first time or you haven't." Edward Redfield
"Beauty should guide all who paint. What is the use of painting ugliness?" Edward Redfield
"Bucks County was a place where an independent, self-sufficient man could make a living from the land, bring up a family and still have the freedom to paint as he saw fit." Edward Redfield
The exhibition illustrates the varied responses that this group of artists had to the regional landscape, from the atmospheric, moody landscapes of William Lathrop, to the vigorous, rugged "at one go" paintings of Edward Redfield, to the refined, evanescent beauty of Daniel Garber's local scenes.
"I am a very happy man! I am a simple man... . I am enthusiastic about my painting; I have few theories about it. In art, as in other things, you work out your problems as you go along, always trying to make your work better; and as your work grows, you grow, immensely. I've had a wonderful life." Daniel Garber
The impressive array of paintings brought together in this exhibition also includes other important Pennsylvania Impressionist painters such as: Fern Isabel Coppedge, famous for her vibrant, expressive use of color; George Sotter, known for his magical, starry nocturnes; and Charles Rosen , who captured ephemeral glimpses of nature in transition. Walter Emerson Baum , John Fulton Folinsbee, Harry Leith-Ross , Arthur Meltzer , Kenneth R. Nunamaker, Robert Spencer, Walter Elmer Schofield, Henry B. Snell and Fred Wagner complete the survey.
"People used to think me queer when I was a little girl because I saw deep purples and reds and violets in a field of snow. I used to be hurt over it until I gave up trying to understand people and concentrated on my love and understanding of landscapes. Then it didn't make any difference." Fern Coppedge
"It is always more interesting to experience art in the area where it originated," said Bruce Katsiff, director and CEO of the Museum. "The Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings were created largely in Bucks County, and now, through the generosity of Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, many fine examples will remain in the community that first inspired the work."
"The work of Charles Rosen is remarkable for its vitality, sincerity and power. . . . Always sincere, always convincing, always true to the facts of nature, his canvases palpitate with life -- the wind blows through them, and leaves rustle, and water ripples and splashes in the sunlight. But beyond all this, there is an elusive something in much of his work that defies exact analysis and which may best be described by the word "imagination.." Birge Harrison, 1916
"In the oil medium George Setter is especially successful in his nocturnes. .. . Into these compositions he weaves a still color magic, intense in its blues, though with tonal vibration. He is sensitive to subtle light differences which may be studied even in his painting of stars, to which he would seem to bring a knowledge of astronomy as well as a painter's delight." From a review in The Lambertville Record, 1933
"I don't care whether the building is a factory
or a mill; whether it makes automobile tires or silk shirts. It is the romantic
mass of the building, its placing relative to the landscape and the life
in and about it that count." Robert
Selected exhibition Text by Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum
The Birth of an Art Colony
If you happen to stand in front of something beautiful in Bucks County, chances are an artist has been there before you, and somewhere you will find a painting or a drawing that conveys the artist's thoughts and feelings about the place. Artists often want to live and work in areas that inspire them, and in Bucks County the main source of inspiration has always been the region's picturesque pastures, streams, quarries, farmhouses, and colonial villages. But there were other reasons why visual artists came here. Many appreciated the convenient location, close to New York City and Philadelphia. Some followed in the footsteps of respected teachers and friends. Others were drawn to the atmosphere of tolerance that is rooted in the county's Quaker tradition.
While Bucks County was home to a number of important artists earlier in the 19th century, the real story began in 1898, when two nationally known landscape painters arrived here: Edward W. Redfield and William L. Lathrop. Their presence started to attract other artists, and within a few years an art colony, centered in New Hope, began to form along the banks of the Delaware River. Like Redfield and Lathrop, many of these artists had prominent careers, and they came to be known for a style of landscape painting called Pennsylvania Impressionism.
European and American Impressionism
Impressionism was born in France in the 1860s and 70s, when a group of rebellious landscape painters began to exhibit canvases that, to the conventional eye, seemed crude and unfinished. Now-familiar figures like Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) shocked the Parisian art world with their bright colors and sketchy, spontaneous brushwork. Soon the style caught on, and by the 1880s and '90s numerous young American painters were journeying to France to learn the new techniques. Some of these artists even established an American "colony" at Monet's famous home in Giverny, where they apprenticed themselves to the elder master and, later, brought his ideas back to America.
It could be said that there were as many Impressionist
styles as there were Impressionist painters. However, both the European
and American painters developed certain recognizable habits. Usually these
artists worked out of doors, in direct contact with their subject matter.
They were especially fascinated with light, and sometimes went to great
lengths to ensure the basic accuracy of the appearance of light and shadow
at specific times of day. They developed complex color schemes based on
the latest scientific theories about color and perception. Some Impressionists
also had a romantic side to their personalities, and loved to portray idealized
feminine figures wearing frilly dresses, sitting in fanciful gardens.
When you think of Impressionist painting, the first words that enter your mind are probably not "virile," "force," and "veracity." But these are the very words that were used by early 20th-century critics to describe the work of Edward Redfield and his Bucks County compatriots, who were praised for creating a style of Impressionism that was free of French influence and firmly rooted in the American soil. Boston Impressionists often depicted ornate interiors and peopled their canvases with well-dressed society ladies; the same critics described these artists as "aristocrats" who were obsessed with "parlor manners." So from the beginning, the Pennsylvania painters were associated with a vigorous realism, grounded in love of the land and embodying America's populist, pioneer spirit.
While these ideas may accurately describe the work of Redfield and his like-minded colleagues, most of the best-known Bucks County painters developed mature styles of their own that are relatively easy to recognize. The term "Pennsylvania Impressionism" can thus be seen as a kind of large umbrella that shelters many distinctive voices, with Redfield and his followers at the center.
Artists and the Land
It may be true, as the saying goes, that "charity begins at home." But it's even more true that art begins at home. Many artists make their best work when they feel a sense of connection with a particular locale, especially landscape painters, who often fall in love with an area and spend their whole lives obsessively exploring every detail of the place. Thus, the great French painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) made dozens of renditions of a single mountain near his home. And Cézanne's colleague Claude Monet (1840-1926) made countless versions of the gardens, footbridges, and lily ponds at his famous home in Giverny. In Bucks County, Daniel Garber first transformed his property by remodeling the barn, making a picturesque pond, and designing new outbuildings. Like Monet, he then used his home as a subject for some of his best-known paintings.
Sometimes a whole group of artists will set down roots in the same spot. These artists then begin to influence each other's work, and an art colony is born. In France in the 1840s, a colony that came to be known as the Barbizon School settled in the forest of Fontainebleau, near Paris. In America, colonies associated with the Impressionist style flowered in such far-flung places as Connecticut, Long Island, California, and New Mexico. Usually these groups were led by dynamic artist/teachers who had national reputations. So the colorful story of the New Hope art colony was repeated throughout the country, as artists who felt the call of landscape painting found inspiration in places that they loved.
Garber and the Pennsylvania Academy
The rich history of the visual arts in Bucks County simply would not have occurred without the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Beginning with Thomas Hicks in the late 1830s and continuing to the present day, almost all of the area's most significant artists either studied, taught, or regularly exhibited at the Academy. And it was the Academy's emphasis on grounding its students in the ancient crafts of drawing and painting that provided the foundation of the Pennsylvania Impressionist style. The two best-known Bucks County painters -- Edward Redfield and Daniel Garber -- studied at "PAFA," and their influence guided several successive generations of regional artists away from the modernist, abstract style and toward the more conservative mind-set known as Academy Realism.
Garber was also one of the Pennsylvania Academy's most
revered teachers. It was often said that there were only two kinds of students
at the school: those interested in modern art ended up in France, while
the rest "went up the Delaware." Garber taught at the Academy
for 41 years, and his prominent role as a defender of traditional aesthetic
values caused one of his students to remark that he was "The strong
and steady center of the school." He was also admired for his skills
as a painter, as evidenced by the following verse that was found on the
men's room wall at the school shortly before he retired: "Barns are
painted by fools like me, but only Garber can paint a tree."
The End of Pennsylvania Impressionism
It's hard to believe now, but when the Pennsylvania Impressionist painters became famous in the early 1900s, they were actually considered somewhat avant-garde. Redfield, Garber, and Lathrop won countless awards in these years, and they often were jurors for important exhibitions around the country. The peak of the movement probably occurred in 1915 at the prestigious Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where several Bucks County artists won important medals and Redfield was honored with an entire room devoted to his canvases.
But the seeds of the school's demise had already been planted. In 1913, a group of young artists organized the International Exposition of Modern Art at the 69th Regimental Armory in New York City. Known simply as the Armory Show, this exhibit was the American public's first exposure to European abstract art.
While this highly controversial show was reviled in the newspapers (the artists were called "madmen"), it forever changed the way art was made in America. Styles such as Pennsylvania Impressionism came to be seen as quaint and backward-looking. The Armory Show also firmly established New York as the center of the American art world, and since many of the Bucks County painters were more associated with Philadelphia, their work received less and less attention. Finally, during the 1930s many artists turned to socially conscious art in response to the widespread suffering brought on by the Depression. Pennsylvania Impressionism was discredited and largely forgotten in the art world until the 1980s and '90s, when both scholars and the general public have begun to rediscover the depth and consummate skill of these earlier masters of landscape painting.
About Brian H. Peterson
Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum, has more than 20 years experience as a curator, critic, and arts administrator in the Philadelphia area. He has been responsible for guiding the Michener's exhibition program since 1993, and was the Chief Curator/Project Manager for the museum's major permanent exhibition on Bucks County artists that opened in 1996 (Creative Bucks County: A Celebration of Art and Artists). He has curated numerous historic and contemporary exhibitions with a wide range of subject matter and genres; his most recent project, Intimate Vistas: The Poetic Landscapes of William Langson Lathrop, opened at the Michener in October, 1999.
Peterson was the Founder and Project Director of the Photography Sesquicentennial Project, the Philadelphia-area's major cooperative celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of photography funded principally by the Pew Charitable Trusts (1988-1990). He has received two Fellowships for Visual Arts Criticism from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (1988 and 1983), and was a member of the Visual Arts Advisory Panel of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts from 1996 to 1998. He taught photography for more than 12 years, at the University of Delaware, the Tyler School of Art, and Swarthmore College. Peterson received a Masters in Studio Art from the University of Delaware, and a Bachelor of Arts in Music Composition from the University of Pennsylvania.
Also a practicing artist, Peterson has had more than 20 solo exhibitions of his photographs since 1980. His work is in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Amon Carter Museum, the Library of Congress, and the State Museum of Pennsylvania.
Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Michener Art Museum.
Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.
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. 4/27/11
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