Walter Emerson Baum, Pennsylvania Artist, 1884-1956

By Martha Hutson-Saxton


Beginning with the paintings of the Hudson River School, critics sought a nationalistic interpretation of the European-derived artistic tradition. The Barbizon School of France had a dominant influence on many American artists during the 1870s and 1880s, which was followed by the gradual acceptance of French Impressionism. But, crucial to Americans artists was the identification with the energy and emerging power of their native land.

In 1909 the successful artist and writer, Birge Harrison, singled out Walter Schofield (1867-1944) and Edward Redfield (1869-1965), both disciples of Henri, in Landscape Painting in America. He noted the advent of a new art movement in the country reflecting the powerful drive of the American life. These two men would become major Pennsylvania landscape painters and dominate the Impressionist landscape school in that area for decades. Their paintings, described as "masculine" and American, appeared across the country in a popular series of museum exhibitions.

Acquaintances of Baum, both Redfield and Schofield were known for large exhibition canvases painted outdoors with strong, clear colors laid in broad strokes. Their paintings became synonymous with the American spirit and the Bucks County or New Hope School of landscape painting. The artist colony in New Hope, Pennsylvania, began when William Lathrop (1859-1938) moved to the Philips' Mill property at the village's edge in 1898. Edward Redfield arrived shortly after Lathrop and became the most important and dominant artist in the area. Not even the presence of Daniel Garber (1880-1958), who lived near New Hope, or Walter Schofield, who was associated with this school, could compete with Redfield's influence on the generations of artists who would follow him.

In some respects, Walter Baum arrived at the Philadelphia Academy with a mature vision of his work. Exhibiting first in 1910 with a winter scene in watercolor priced at thirty dollars, he became a steady entrant in both watercolor and oil, and at Fellowship of the Academy shows, organized by Academy alumni interested in promoting public awareness and sale of their art. It is impossible to know exactly when Baum began working on a larger scale, since many works from this period are undated and the dimensions are not given in the Academy catalogs. However, by 1917, the Bucks County style of painting is dearly evident in Baum's large piece, To the Village. It is surprisingly confident in composition and brushwork and it embraces the season with which he would always be associated.

Inspiration for this sun-filled winter scene lies, most likely, in Pennsylvania's Lehigh valley. Gazing from a hilltop down into a snow-blanketed river-side town, the sky is brushed smooth with an even coat of pigment, that is in contrast to the thick, layered surface of ground and buildings. In those areas brushstrokes are more obvious, more dramatic. Baum reduced forms to their simplest shape, merely hinting at structure. Houses are realized as color blocks and seem stuccoed in pigment. A lone sleigh slides through the stillness of this scene. There is a quiet, frozen control in this work, distinct from the emotional vibrancy of Redfield and Schofield landscapes.

Baum received his first major award in 1918: a bronze medal at Philadelphia's American Artists exhibition. This recognition was not only valuable to him on a professional level, but heartening to an artist struggling to succeed in his profession. He painted another large canvas that year. The Road was shown at the Fellowship of the Academy exhibition in 1919. This work was conceived in the naturalistic manner so successful for many Bucks County artists. It is a bright, spacious winter landscape with carefully observed trees and heavy snowfall criss-crossed with cool shadows. A horse and sleigh disappear around the road's bend adding a note of nostalgic charm and Walter and Flora's initials are carved into a foreground tree.

Baum took on several part-jobs to support Flora and their four children. He traveled to poultry shows locally and as distant as Maryland and Washington, D.C. to take photographs he later composed into montages of prize-winning chickens, ducks and geese for The Poultry Item, a farming magazine. Baum also wrote for the Sellersville Herald. By 1921 he was promoted from reporter to editor and eventually given his own column, which he used to set-forth the social ideals and traditions of Sellersville's heritage. He continued to write for the paper until 1942.

Active on both the school board and in the office of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, Baum occasionally helped in his family's barbershop and he was known to have tried selling lightning rods. Increasing public recognition of his paintings opened additional opportunities. Baum began teaching weekly art classes in his Sellersville home on Green Street, at the local high school and on the top floor of an abandoned cigar factory. But while art instruction came easy, finding time for his own paintings did not.

When his schedule permitted, Baum would drive into the countryside, exploring the villages of Bucks, Berks, Montgomery and Lehigh Counties until an area caught his interest and set up his easel, quickly working in several different size formats. The village of Point Pleasant, near New Hope, was a favorite location. Baum's Point Pleasant is a view from a bluff atop the Delaware River near the village of Point Pleasant. Every object has a sense of precise placement. Baum's composition is deliberate and successful. A fall scene, Point Pleasant's colors of blue, orange, or black in the stonewalls contrast against the brilliant yellow houses with lime-green shutters. Shadowed evergreens rise up in masses of blue pigment.

The New Hope artists were well known for working outdoors in all seasons. Baum followed this precept. Redfield, in particular, insisted on the rigors of outdoor work and felt even large paintings should be completed in "one go," a single sitting. [2] Limited time required rapid execution and allowed for little detail or analysis. Like the principles of French Impressionism, the visual effect of light and color had to be recorded as quickly as possible for the "impression" to be captured with a fresh eye.


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