Walter Emerson Baum, Pennsylvania Artist, 1884-1956

By Martha Hutson-Saxton

 



Journalistic contacts may have provided the additional opportunity to sell his work through the Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia. Baum's first cover appeared on January 1931's Country Gentleman, a popular monthly agriculture magazine produced by Curtis. Baum adapted his standard horizontal compositions with ease to the vertical format required for the magazine. Almost all the large vertical paintings by Baum are from the thirties and were probably conceived as covers for Country Gentleman.

Through exhibition openings at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Baum met N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, whose illustrations enlivened the covers of the Saturday Evening Post for years. While their covers told a whole story in a single scene, Baum's covers were simply reproductions of his landscapes. His only true attempt at illustration was much later, on Selected Short Stories of Thomas Hardy, published by Rodale Press in 1948.

In May 1933, Baum's first one-man show opened at the McClees Gallery in Philadelphia. He exhibited thirty-eight works completed between 1930-33, mostly landscapes. Although Baum had a personal policy that his paintings not be reviewed in the Philadelphia Bulletin, he did receive good reviews from the other Philadelphia papers. The Inquirer referred to him as the "artist, critic, and arch-apostle, in his art, to the countryside of Bucks, Montgomery, Berks, and Lehigh counties, where, in truth, much simple homely beauty is to be found. He has a fine flair for those atmospheric differences . . . among the seasons." [6] Though impressionistic style was no longer considered "modern art," Bucks County landscapes were still popular with the public and their sale continued to support his family.

In Allentown, Baum began the Circulating Picture Club and the Allentown Art Gallery to benefit the general public and schools. In the winter of 1933 Allentown's school district allotted two more rooms for his growing art class. Out of one room Baum created a gallery filled with his works, those of teachers and students, and anything else he could borrow or have donated by artists from New Hope to Philadelphia. These artworks could be rented for a few dollars, exchanged, or eventually purchased. The Allentown Art Museum had a formal opening on March 17, 1934, with hundreds of people touring the school rooms with seventy canvases on display. Judge Frank Trexler spoke on his long held hope for an Allentown art museum. The main speaker was the art critic of the Philadelphia Ledger, Dorothy Grafly, who acknowledged the grass roots effort of the Baum art group to spread the "gospel" of art appreciation.

Two years later, the Allentown Art Museum opened in its own building with a 110-work collection with an estimated value of $15,000. This gift to the people of Allentown, orchestrated by Baum, used no tax dollars. The four galleries were divided among Lehigh Valley artists, a collection secured from the Federal Public Works of Art project in Philadelphia, and two rooms of work donated by artists from Philadelphia and the Midwest. Baum immediately began an exhibition program that included local artists, and displays lent by other institutions, such as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. At the same time he increased his efforts to acquire more works for the collection from dealers, artists and private collectors.

By the mid-thirties, Baum's compositions moved away from naturalistic impression toward a surface-oriented design with strong color blocks held in place by black lines. Joseph Pickett's Studio, New Hope is strikingly unlike it predecessors. Color and thick pigment energize and control the composition. Every form is simplified and flattened in the style of New Hope contemporaries, like Harry Leith-Ross (1886-1973), who also saw structures in basic color forms.

Baum had a natural affinity for watercolor, a medium he continued to use throughout his career. The medium leaves no room for reconsideration. Each touch is permanent to the paper and can only be softened or deepened as the artist desires. He exhibited more than fifty watercolors at the Academy alone from 1910 to 1950, with subjects ranging from portraits, and model studies, figure groupings to the inevitable landscapes. He often used watercolors as studies for works he planned to develop into larger oil paintings.

Shows he reviewed for the Bulletin exposed Baum to other American watercolor artists, such as Homer, Sargent, Prendergast, and Marin. His own style ranged from the smooth, glazing of color to the rapid sparkle and dash of a fleeting brush touch. Baum preferred a large scale for his watercolor landscapes generally working on twenty-two by thirty inch paper. The white of the paper itself played a major role especially in his winter scenes. Baum received awards for his watercolors throughout his life.

Branching away from Philadelphia, in 1936 Baum submitted work to the National Academy of Design in New York City. From six thousand entries, Baum's painting On the Hill was one of a hundred works chosen from non-members of the academy. It was part of a series of views of Easton, Pennsylvania, twenty miles east of Allentown along the Delaware.

Landscape remained his favorite subject matter throughout the 1940s, but Baum gradually turned to street scenes of Allentown and Manayunk, near Philadelphia, in the 1940s and 1950s. His style revealed a regionalist influence in its simple forms, smooth brushwork and refined surface texture. He liked the art of Rockwell Kent and Thomas Hart Benton, but he would absorb what interested him and transform it to his own artistic vision.

Baum continued to exhibit in Philadelphia and New York City, winning awards from conservative juries at the Pennsylvania Academy and the National Academy of Design. Walter Baum directed both the Allentown Art Museum and The Baum School of Art until his death in 1956. He received an honorary doctorate from Lehigh University in the mid-40s, acknowledging the rich legacy of his art and the cultural institutions he founded and maintained.

A monograph on the work and life of Walter Emerson Baum will be available in March, 1996, in conjunction with an exhibition on the artist at the Allentown Art Museum. Individuals who have information about Walter Baum or know the location of paintings are asked to contact Martha Hutson-Saxton at the Allentown Art Museum.

 

Notes:

1. Craftsman, March 1906, 753-773. As cited in Susan Danley, Light, Air and Color, American Impressionist Painting from the Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1990, 22.

2. Thomas Folk, Edward Redfield, First Master of the 20th Century Landscape, The Allentown Art Museum, 1987, 35.

3. Birge Harrison, Landscape Painting, New York, New York, 1909, 159-160.

4. Attributed to Walter Baum, "Not One Painting Sold at Academy," Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Saturday, March 31, 1934, E3.

5. Ibid.

6. "In Gallery and Studio," Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, May 7, 1933.

 


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