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Impressionist Jewels: The Paintings of Martha Walter

September 22 to November 17, 2002

by W Douglass Paschall

 

For many years, the Woodmere Art Museum has taken justifiable delight in "rediscovering" the work of underappreciated artists of Philadelphia's past and bringing their stories and their art to wider public attention.  This autumn offers another such rewarding opportunity in the exhibition Impressionist Jewels: The Paintings of Martha Walter.

That we feel the need, though, to rediscover a painter of indisputable talent raises salient questions.  Just how, we might ask, did it come about that Ms. Walter's works could have receded so far from the acclaim we now feel they merit?  Was it because she was a woman in a discipline dominated by men?  Were her subjects or style of painting of a nature that subsequent generations could not grasp their appeal?  Can we identify some dark cabal suppressing these paintings, or was their relative neglect a mere accident?

Martha Walter (1875-1976) established her credentials early as one of the foremost Impressionist painters of Philadelphia, with a distinctive flair for ethnographic subjects, park and seashore scenes, and portraits of women and children.  She began her career with auspicious professional honors.  A student of William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she won the school's Toppan Prize and Cresson Traveling Scholarship. In 1909, after having exhibited only four times in the Academy's annual exhibitions, she won its Mary Smith Prize for the best painting by a resident female artist.  Soon she was teaching at Chase's New York School of Art.  The ultimate honor came when one of her canvases was acquired by the prestigious Luxembourg Museum in Paris.

The attention of critics came more slowly.  Though women artists were certainly not ignored by journalists, a select few, such as Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux, received most accolades.  Martha Walter benefited from her place in one of the first waves of women to break into the rarified world of the fine arts -- it provided her a competitive education and the emotional support of colleagues -- but she also may have suffered from the art world's tendency to focus a narrow spotlight on the most visible exemplars of a new demographic.

Visibility was key, and it required more than a steady stream of submissions to top exhibitions.  It required media savvy, such as that perfected by Walter's teacher, Chase.  As Walter embarked on her career, it was Robert Henri and Arthur B. Davies and Alfred Stieglitz who most successfully courted the media with the daring, aggressive novelty of modern art. Against that frenzy, an art of gentility, even one embracing new and topical subjects, never stood a chance.  This was our loss as much as Ms. Walter's.

Little, of course, has changed in intervening decades, and in this era of media hype, it is instructive and intriguing to look around us, in the present and to the past, to seek the treasures that have been created beyond the limelight.  We invite you to join us as we explore the art of Martha Walter, one of the Delaware Valley's genuine jewels.

 

About the author

W. Douglass Paschall is Curator of Collections at the Woodmere Art Museum.

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