DOYLESTOWN, PENN. — The Michener Art Museum, which has established an enviable reputation for its collection and exhibitions featuring Pennsylvania artists, especially Bucks County painters, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with an unusual and intriguing participatory exhibition. “The People’s Choice: Celebrating Michener’s Top 25,” on view through July 20, showcases 25 works that were chosen by popular vote from a selection of 125 key objects from the permanent collection.
From May to November last year, the public voted — online or via paper ballot — on its favorites. The 25 works that received the most votes comprise the current exhibition. Visitors will have opportunities for continued curation by writing text panels onsite; some will be chosen and exhibited with their corresponding objects. The exhibition project manager and curator is Adrienne N. Romano, director of education, new media and interpretive initiatives.
To the surprise of some, the number one vote-getter was a charcoal drawing, “Little Girl Knitting” by Daniel Garber (1880–1958). The second most important and influential Pennsylvania Impressionist artist, Indiana native Garber studied and taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) for nearly a half century. The fan favorite, a charming, deftly delineated charcoal drawing of Garber’s 11-year old daughter Tanis, reflects his superb draftsmanship and affection for children.
In oils, Garber used a decorative patterning technique and high-keyed palette in compositions that resemble tapestries in their design, creating an ideal, near mystical world out of the reality of Bucks County. Ranked 19th out of the Top 25 is Garber’s large, characteristic oil “A Wooded Watershed,” a serene view through woods populated by deer across the Delaware River to brightly sunlit rocks and trees.
Coming in second in the balloting was a compelling nocturne by Pennsylvania Impressionist George Sotter (1879–1953), the beautifully painted, evocative untitled (Night Snow Scene). It demonstrates Sotter’s affinity for depicting stone houses amid deep snow under starry skies.
A lesser known New Hope artist, Rae Sloan Bredin (1881–1933), came in third with an appealing, lush landscape with figures along a towpath, “After the Rain.” Following studies at the Art Students League, Bredin settled on the towpath of New Hope’s canal, the site of this painting.
Fourth place went to a masterpiece by the leading Pennsylvania Impressionist, Edward W. Redfield (1869–1965). His dramatic oil, “The Burning of Center Bridge,” records silhouetted figures watching the spectacular blaze that engulfed the span near the artist’s home/studio. It suggests the keen eye and broad, bold brushwork that earned Redfield more honors than any artist of this period, with the exception of John Singer Sargent.
Famous and influential, Redfield studied at PAFA and in Paris. He settled in Bucks County on the canal and adjacent to the Delaware River in Center Bridge. He was famous for painting outdoors, often in brutal winter weather conditions, and completing a canvas “in one go.” Redfield would strap his easel to trees to paint during rough winter weather. A powerful personality whose vigorous paintings matched his persona, he turned out scores of compelling winter scenes around Bucks County that inspired numerous followers and won national acclaim. Redfield had a major influence on the work of other painters in the Top 25, including Walter Baum, Fern Coppedge, John F. Folinsbee, Kenneth Nunamaker, Charles Rosen and Sotter.
As might be expected, many Top 25 works are paintings by compelling and important Pennsylvania Impressionists, aka the New Hope School. Early in the Twentieth Century they found Bucks County ideally suited for an artists’ colony, with unspoiled landscapes, the Delaware River and canals to paint. The cost of living and working was relatively inexpensive, and they were close enough to Philadelphia to retain ties to PAFA, where many had studied and would teach, but far enough away to encourage a sense of independence.
Whereas Boston and New York Impressionists painted urban scenes and the figure, landscape was the common denominator among the Pennsylvania Impressionists. Moreover, the latter group utilized a new, vigorous and more spontaneous style of painting, a style that owed much to French Impressionism (many had trained in Paris), and was considerably stronger than the overly genteel American Impressionism coming out of Boston and New York.
Around World War I, the New Hope painters reinvigorated the American Impressionist movement that had become too elegant, brightly colored, even effete. In the words of perceptive contemporary critic and artist Guy Pene du Bois, the reigning Impressionists were too aristocratic and too concerned with beauty and pretty colors, while he characterized Pennsylvania Impressionists as America’s “first truly national expression” — rugged, virile — and “truly American.”
While painting pastures, forests, quarries, river, canals and brickyards, bridges and mills, they emphasized some aspects of their PAFA training: direct observation, realism and painting what they saw, whether it was pretty or not. They painted the essence of subjects, not beautified versions.
While they painted in all seasons, Redfield and company specialized in snowy winter scenes, a substantial challenge to plein air artists. Each painter had his or her own style and each brought his or her own interpretation to each landscape, which they usually painted onsite, applying a lot of paint with gusto and confidence.
Number six crowd favorite is New Hope painter Coppedge (1883–1951), who followed Redfield’s lead, shared his predilection for snowy winter landscapes with vigorous brushwork and vivid colors. From the Midwest, she studied in Chicago, then at the Art Students League and under Garber at PAFA before establishing her home and studio on New Hope’s North Main Street overlooking the Delaware. The only woman from the art colony to gain national recognition, Coppedge created robustly brushed landscapes, most notably snowscapes that stand out for their deep snow drifts and imaginative, Fauvist-colored houses, roofs, trees and roads. Coppedge’s “Road to Lumberville” showcases her innovative and appealing style.
Nunamaker (1890–1957), the only New Hope painter with no formal art training, received guidance from Redfield, whose style and subject matter he echoed. Both often painted a brook just north of town; Nunamaker’s precise, lush and atmospheric “Brook in Winter” is similar to Redfield’s rendering of the same site, and was voted ninth most popular.
Number ten in the polling, Folinsbee’s “Bowman’s Hill” offers a freely brushed panorama of Bucks County countryside. Folinsbee (1892–1972) was born in Buffalo, settled in New Hope in a house along the Delaware and developed a broad, vigorous and expressive style that owed something to his admiration for Paul Cezanne and Redfield.
Rosen (1878–1950) studied at the Art Students League before moving to New Hope in 1903. His early snow scenes are reminiscent of Redfield’s, but he soon developed a colorful, stippled technique in compositions that incorporated Japanese design concepts, as in his glowing “Opalescent Morning,” ranked 22nd. Unhappy with Impressionism, Rosen moved to Woodstock, N.Y., where he painted landscape and river scenes in a Cubist-Realist style.
The only native of Bucks County, Baum (1884–1956) studied at PAFA and found the landscape of his home area a constant source of inspiration, particularly in winter. His bold, expressive style, featuring broken brushwork and heavy paint, with blue-shadowed topography and crisply modeled houses and barns, was akin to Redfield’s. “South Side, Easton (Industrial Scene Easton)” documenting Baum’s bravura painting style and predilection for blue highlights was voted number 25.
Ranked 17th is “The Twins: Virginia and Jane” by Joseph Pearson (1876–1951) a large, charming oil, notable for the manner in which the artist individualized his daughters, such as their differing stances.
“Rae Seated (Green Dress),” Ben Solowey’s precise, colorful, loving portrait of his attractive wife, was voted seventh. A Polish-born Philadelphian trained at PAFA, Solowey (1900–1978) started out as a theatrical portraitist for New York City newspapers. He and his wife moved to Bedminster in Bucks County in 1942, where he applied an academic Modernist style to acclaimed landscapes, portraits and still lifes.
Number five in popularity was the remarkable trompe l’oeil “Countermeasure” by contemporary artist Alan Magee, who was born in Bucks County in 1947, trained in Philadelphia and first worked as an award-winning illustrator. Now a resident of Maine, he creates found-object sculptures, black and white depictions of disjointed faces with haunting expressions, and marvelous trompe l’oeil renderings of such everyday objects as tools, nuts and bolts, spark plugs and paint brushes. His fascination with and close observation of the complex beauty of New England beach stones — smooth, flecked, striated — led to magical acrylic on canvas works like “Countermeasure” that never cease to amaze.
Famed Bucks County realist painter and teacher Nelson Shanks (b 1937) trained at PAFA and is best known for painting presidents, princesses and popes. His beguiling “Pigtails,” voted number 8, is described by Michener director and chief executive officer Lisa Temper Hanover as a “serious and sensuous study of the shoulders, back and rear view of a young woman, almost like a landscape of skin and bone structure.”
The Michener has a rich display of sculpture around its grounds, of which two, Raymond Barger’s (1906–2001) “Transition,” number 15, and Masami Kodama’s “Mobius,” number 16, made the Top 25. Born in Japan in 1933, Kodama taught for many years at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He creates marble and bronze sculptures characterized by graceful, sinuous forms like the Michener example.
Objects by woodworkers in the Top 25 are impressive reminders of the Delaware Valley studio craft tradition, particularly in furniture. Although for some reason none of his works made the cut, the leading woodworker in the region for decades was George Nakashima, who settled in New Hope in 1943. The tradition of his idiosyncratic objects — made with discipline and patience, striving for perfection and exploring the organic expressiveness of wood — has been ably carried on by his daughter, Mira (b 1942). Her “Simon Table” resembles her father’s iconic works and was voted number 14.
Inspired by George Nakashima, Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919–2008) settled in New Hope just after World War II, and developed appealing furniture designs. His mesmerizing tour de force of graceful, stacked and carved softwood, polychromed, “Door and Surround,” was voted number 24.
Veteran studio woodworker Robert Whitley (b 1924) continues to make objects that embody the beauty, grace and function of early American furniture, while emphasizing the natural character and strength of the woods he uses. “Throne Desk and Chair,” an appealing ensemble made of varied, contrasting woods, was voted number 11.
A measure of the depth and strength of the Michener’s collection is documented by the number of significant artists whose work did not make the cut for the Top 25, such as Arthur B. Davies, Guy Pene du Bois, William Gropper, Edward Hicks, William L. Lathrop, Walter E. Schofield, Ben Shahn, Charles Sheeler, Robert Spencer and Henry O. Tanner. With plans to expand its Pennsylvania Impressionists holdings and enhance its collection of Nineteenth–Twenty-First Century works of a national scope, the future looks bright for this admirable museum.
The Michener is at 138 Pine Street. For information, www.michenerartmuseum.org or 215-340-9800.