Walter Emerson Baum, Pennsylvania Artist, 1884-1956

By Martha Hutson-Saxton


Sunlight and Shadow won Baum the Jenny Sesnan Gold Medal for best landscape at the 1925 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts annual oil exhibition. The critical acclaim marked a turning point in his career. Sunlight and Shadow was a late substitution for another work Baum had chosen to show. Walter, who had a quick temper of short duration, kicked a hole in the canvas of his original choice after Flora complained its composition was too busy. He paid for his undisciplined reaction by having to replace the work as quickly as possible. Finished in a single day just prior to the show, Sunlight's creamy pigments were applied heavily. Baum gouged out fences and shadows with his palette knife and brush. Tree branches stretch far beyond the reality of dimension, while a figure struggles up the road though swirling pigments of snow; contrasting pure whites in sunlight and shadowed blues. Few bright touches of color are actually used, but the painting's surface crackles with electric vitality. The painting remained with Baum throughout his career, and is now on display at the Allentown Art Museum.

In 1926, Baum regained the privacy of his family's home, relocating his Saturday art classes to Allentown. Flora handled the secretarial and business records, while the Allentown school district provided space and supplies for the class. Described as a close, affectionate group dedicated to the making of art, adults and children, beginners and advanced students were welcomed by the Baums.

Walter Baum augmented his editorial career with an art review column in the Saturday edition of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Weekly visits to Philadelphia exhibitions kept Baum abreast of current artists as well as art of other cultures. He continued his association with the Academy, the Philadelphia Art Alliance, The Sketch Club, and The Art Club. His paintings were in traveling exhibitions and were invited to be in or submitted to prominent shows from Buffalo to Washington, D.C., and as far west as Utah.

The area around Sellersville provided Baum with an endless supply of subject matter. Grist mills, often still in use, not only symbolized the hardship and triumph of his Pennsylvania-German heritage, but also had a rustic picturesqueness. In Old Red Mill, his ancestor's strength and perseverance is embodied in the physical structure frozen shut by snow and ice. The sky is overcast, emphasizing the severity of the freezing temperatures, while silently the water flows past the frozen eddies of this country mill.

Even in the worst weather, Baum preferred painting outdoors. His children remember their father going out in several pairs of pants and layers of shirts and sweaters, with fingerless gloves for brush control. Some of Baum's largest canvases were done in-studio from smaller studies, but he is known to have painted 30 x 36 inch canvases in the snow. If the weather was too bad, he set up inside his car -- adorning canvas, dashboard and floor mats alike with drips of paint.

One of Birge Harrison's directives to artists was:

Use plenty of pigment also -- great "gobs" of it. A well-furnished palette is half the battle. Squeeze out twice as much color as you think you can possible need, and then use it all. Look at the work of our friends Redfield, Sorolla, Foster, Schofield, Dougherty, Dearth, Chase -- all the good painters. It shows clearly that they have plenty of paint upon their palettes. Never count the cost of your pigments. Use them as if they were the very dirt under your feet.[3]

In the 1920s Baum fully embraced this idea. Visual surface effects of his works rivaled their themes. But he did so without sacrificing the feel of actual location, so successful in Mill Race. With intent in every touch, he spread the brilliant colors of fall throughout the work. The stream reflects the bright leaves above, its bank basking in warm glows of gold and red. Baum's command of palette and brush was at its height during these years. Mill Race exemplifies his confidence in a foliaged landscape, as well as in the winter scenes now associated with his name.

Artistic patronage crashed with the stock market in 1929. Baum wrote, "for the artist who has arrived and is maintaining a studio and by reputation is known as a success, there is no hope for aid as it is now dispersed."[4] Though he lived a self-sustaining lifestyle in a small community of family and lifetime friends, Baum increased his efforts to sell his work and that of artist friends and pupils. In 1930, four of his students, John Berninger, Joseph Gehringer, Walter Mattern and Melville Stark, were accepted in the Circulating Picture Club of the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Baum students also began to appear regularly in Philadelphia Sketch Club exhibitions.

With his column in the Philadelphia Bulletin, Baum made very effort to keep the public abreast of the current shows each week as he covered public museums, private institutions, and gallery shows. Exhibitions at clubs, schools, and stores were mentioned as well, along with awards and prizes at every level of importance. The names of artists and their work ranged from the most famous to the most obscure. Seldom was there a word of even mild criticism; his purpose was to praise and support every artistic effort on the part of the establishment to keep artists working. His report of the annual 1934 exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts sums up the dilemma in its title, "Not One Painting Sold At Academy."[5] Prize-winning works were traditionally purchased by the Academy, but out of 453 pieces not one was sold privately.


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