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The Cities, the Towns, the Crowds: The Paintings of Robert Spencer

June 5 - September 19, 2004


(above: Robert Spencer, The White Tenement, 1913, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 3/16 inches, Brooklyn Museum of Art, John B. Woodward Memorial Fund 25.761)


"So let us introduce Robert Spencer, who has idealized the clumsy barges of the [Delaware] Canal and converted dark silk factories into dream castles..."

- F. Newlin Price, 1923

As part of its "Summer of Pennsylvania Impressionism," the James A. Michener Art Museum is proud to present a major exhibition of works by Bucks County artist Robert Spencer (1879-1931) in Doylestown this summer. The Cities, the Towns, the Crowds: The Paintings of Robert Spencer features more than 45 works by this masterful artist, a longtime resident of New Hope whose atmospheric paintings were marked by a singular vision and voice.

The exhibition is one of three major shows celebrating leading artists of the Pennsylvania Impressionist school at the Michener Art Museum this summer of 2004: Edward W. Redfield: Just Values and Fine Seeing is on view in New Hope through January 9, 2005, and The Lenfest Exhibition of Pennsylvania Impressionism remains on long-term display in the Putman/Smith Gallery in Doylestown. (right: Robert Spencer, The Other Shore, 1923, oil on canvas, 30 x 36.5 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design)

The Cities, The Towns, the Crowds will feature several rarely seen works by Spencer on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., as well as other collections.

Robert Spencer was one of the most important painters associated with the Pennsylvania Impressionist art colony in Bucks County, but stylistically his work differed strongly from that of most of his New Hope colleagues. Instead of painting scenes from nature, Spencer made his reputation with skillful, evocative views of everyday life, often depicting the mills, tenements, and factories of New Hope and surrounding areas. He also made many paintings of the street life and waterfronts of New York City and France, and toward the end of his life experimented with modernist ideas as well as his own peculiar brand of history painting. Organized by the Michener Art Museum, this major retrospective exhibition and the accompanying book by Senior Curator Brian H. Peterson examine both his life and his work, and is a rare opportunity to explore in depth the world of this major Bucks County painter.

The catalog features extended excerpts from Spencer's letters to Duncan Phillips, a pioneering collector of 20th century art and founder of The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. The letters, from 1918 to Spencer's death in 1931, reveal a great deal about the mutual admiration between the two men, their thoughts on creating and collecting, and the artist's mind-set during the last decade of his life.

Robert Spencer was born in Harvard, Nebraska, in 1879, but his father's job as an itinerant clergyman meant the family moved often. They finally settled in Yonkers, NY, where he graduated from high school, and putting aside his plans to study medicine, enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York City to pursue art. There he met fellow artist Charles Rosen, another important Bucks County painter who moved to the area in 1903. Spencer studied with the legendary painter William Merritt Chase, as well as with Robert Henri, leader of the influential Ashcan School of painters, who became known for their unsentimental depictions of the back alleys and barrooms of New York City. (right: Robert Spencer, Summertime, ca. 1915-20, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches, In trust to the James A. Michener Art Museum from Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest)

Spencer moved to Bucks County in 1906, and three years later studied privately with the already accomplished Daniel Garber, who was just beginning his long career at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. With fellow artist Charles Frederick Ramsey, Spencer rented the dilapidated Huffnagle Mansion, where despite the unglamorous conditions, he produced some of his best canvases (The Silk Mill, The Closing Hour and Grey Mills, all in 1913). In these years, Spencer began to discover his artistic voice.

In sharp contrast to many other successful artists of his day, who made their living with pleasant, idyllic ­ and largely unpopulated -- landscapes, Spencer was drawn to the lived-in, more urban environments, whose slightly dilapidated facades and ordinary working people compelled him. "A landscape without a building or a figure is a very lonely picture to me," he said.

As Peterson writes in his introduction to the catalog: "Spencer liked buildings that were old, beat-up, abandoned. He often painted the back of a building instead of the front; poor, working class people instead of the upper crust; bare-armed, bulky washerwomen instead of delicate, tea-sipping ladies; thieves and prostitutes instead of wispy dancers and genteel ladies."

The early decades of the 20th century were the peak years of the New Hope arts colony, and Spencer and his family became active participants in the everyday life of the place. His circle of close friends included Rae Sloan Bredin, John F. Folinsbee and William L. Lathrop. But the dark side of this seemingly convivial atmosphere surfaced in Spencer's mental instability and bouts of serious depression. His marriage to Philadelphia native Margaret Fulton was a passionate but notoriously turbulent match.

Spencer's letters to Phillips, and the reports of frequent, heated battles with Margaret, reveal symptoms of what today would most likely be diagnosed as manic depression. The artist suffered several breakdowns during his career, and despite frequent visits from the local physician, his mental illness proved unrelenting.

Still, in his healthier periods, Spencer managed to reach exciting breakthroughs in his painting. The Marble Shop (1913), recreates a lonesome, everyday scene with loose brushwork, simple and unfocused composition; a deceptively casual approach that results in an evocative, resonant work. "No one intimately acquainted with the ways of pigment could fail to observe the affection of his delicate craftsmanship," wrote one reviewer in the New York Times.

As he grew into his artistic voice, Spencer could shift with apparent ease between weightier, large-scale canvases to smaller, more intimate scenes; from the gentle domesticity of The Bath (ca. 1915) to the darker overtones of Night Life (1931).

Though he has come to be grouped with the school of Pennsylvania Impressionist artists who flourished in New Hope, the label of 'impressionism' fails to fully capture the range and nuance of Spencer's work. Elements of impressionism, social realism, and genre painting can all be found here. His palette was generally darker, his tones more somber, than that of the other impressionist painters ­ particularly as his work evolved. Peterson notes that "as he matured he grew restless, and in his forties he was making pictures that lived in an entirely different universe."

In his later years, Spencer was expressing a newfound confidence and maturity in his work, experimenting with new techniques and flexing his imaginative muscle. In a 1928 letter to Phillips, the artist reports he is "cutting deeper and with a freedom from painting conventions that I never had before I dare to say what is in my mind with conviction and a free brush and palette."

Ultimately, however, he was unable to stave off the depression that had plagued him throughout his life. Ongoing battles with his wife may have added to his sense of desperation. On the evening of July 10, 1931, following another ferocious clash, Spencer retreated to his studio, where he shot himself.

Many have described Spencer's work as melancholy ­ understandably, given his somber hues and unusual subject matter; and no doubt in view of his tragic death. Nonetheless, in much of his work there is a lively and cheerful appreciation of the human animal, as well as a recognizable quality of wistfulness: an expression of the artist's underlying idealism, and the imaginative courage required to transform ordinary landscapes and buildings into quietly beautiful images.

His friend F. Newlin Price wrote in a 1923 article that Robert Spencer "has idealized the clumsy barges of the [Delaware] Canal and converted dark silk factories into dream castles..." Through his powerful body of work, Spencer's deep affection for the cities, towns and people he chose to depict is apparent, and continues to live.

Sponsored by Acme Corrugated Box Company, Colligan's Stockton Inn, Kreischer Miller and 3D Printing and Copy Center, Inc., the exhibition runs from June 5 through September 19 in the Wachovia Gallery in Doylestown.


Editor's note: For Pennsylvania artists see Earth, River, and Light: Masterworks of Pennsylvania Impressionism (1/21/04), A Matter of Style: Artistic Influences and Directions in 20th-Century Pennsylvania Painting, an essay by Michael A. Tomor; Art and Industry in Philadelphia: Origins of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, an article by Nina de Angeli Walls; Introduction to "Along the Juniata: Thomas Cole and the Dissemination of American Landscape Imagery", an essay by Nancy Siegel, and Pennsylvania Painters and the Roots of Realism, an essay by Judith Hansen O'Toole. Also see Edward Redfield at Michener Art Museum (12/18/98) and The Lenfest Exhibition of Pennsylvania Impressionism (12/16/00).

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Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.