The Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art

Ursinus College

Collegeville, PA



Following is the catalogue text by Dr. Pamela Potter-Hennessey, Assistant Professor of Art History, Ursinus College, accompanying the exhibition "To Paris and Back: Albert Jean Adolphé -- An Artist's Journey," June 1 - August 31, 2001.


To Paris and Back: Albert Jean Adolphé -- An Artist's Journey

by Pamela Potter-Hennessey


Albert Jean Adolphé (1865-1940)

Albert Jean Adolphé was born "Albert John Adolph" in Philadelphia in February 1865. Except for a brief period of study in Europe at the turn of the century, he lived in the city his entire life.[1] Much is still obscure about this intriguing artist who was born in the waning days of the Civil War and died on the eve of America's entry into WWII. He spent more than sixty years as a painter and decorative artist, with teaching at the Drexel Institute and the School of Industrial Art an integral part of his career. Adolphé's portraits, landscapes and decorative designs were familiar to many Philadelphians in the first decades of the 20th century. After his death much of his work was stockpiled in his studio and the canvases, drawings and precious mementos of his student days in Paris would have been scattered to the winds, or perhaps destroyed, if it hadn't been for the efforts of a few individuals who were appreciative of his authoritative work. This list includes Philip and Muriel Berman of Allentown, Pennsylvania who have amassed an amazing collection of Adolphé's artwork, particularly the early paintings and drawings done in Europe, This exhibit, for the most part objects from the Berman Museum of Art permanent collection, is an effort to shed light on Adolphé's career and his artistic production. And, it is an attempt to bring attention to a nearly forgotten artist whose memory and identity has been cast to the shadows. Adolphé was, after all, an important figure in Philadelphia's artistic history -- a productive painter, decorative designer and devoted teacher of several generations of local artists. (left: Self Portrait, oil on board, 11 3/4 x 8 1/8 inches, Collection of Muriel and Philip Berman)

Albert John Adolph was born on Mellon Street in Philadelphia in 1865. His shoemaker father, Anthony Adolph, a German immigrant, and his American mother, Mary Weaver, hoped that their son would pursue a career in medicine. However, it was apparent early in his life that his interests were focused on the world of art. Albert's first noteworthy project drew the attention of his grade school teachers. The life-size portraits of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington that decorated the fence of the firehouse in Tenth Street near Poplar showed promise, and fixed his identity in the community as an aspiring artist.[2]

Further encouraged by his teachers at Central High School, Adolphé eventually applied to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was accepted in the mid- 1880s. While a student of Thomas Eakins, he worked for the decorating firm of Carlisle and Joy to make spending money. He also painted decorations for the old Girard House and embellished the ceiling of Carpenter's Hall. By 1892 he was invited to be part of the team of Pennsylvania artists who traveled to Chicago to work on the Pennsylvania display for the 1893 Chicago World's Colombian Exposition. He won an honorable mention and a prize of $300 for a life-size portrait of his father that was displayed in the Pennsylvania State Exhibition Hall. (left: Eakins Anatomy School, oil on canvas, 18 x 27 3/4 inches)

After the Fair Adolphé won the commission to decorate the twin steamships, St. Louis and St. Paul, of the American Steamship Line, a project that sealed his fate to study in Europe. In early 1895, soon after the ships' maiden voyage, the artist was.summoned to England by the steamship company to repair fire damage to one of the vessels. He immediately set sail for London to head the restoration project and returned to Philadelphia only long enough to find the means to return to study painting in Paris. Adolphé rejected an offer to work for Tiffany and Company, the New York jewelry and silver firm that had been the recipient of international acclaim since the Paris 1889 Exposition Universelle. He quickly settled his affairs and sailed for Paris with his parent's reluctant financial support.

Adolphé's arrival was delayed for a year by a chance shipboard meeting. A diamond cutter from Antwerp invited him to stay with his family before beginning his studies in Paris. He accepted and while exploring Antwerp he met an art student who convinced him to stay in the city to study under Albrecht de Vriendt (1843-1900), Director of the Antwerp Academy. He lived in the Tower Hotel near the Cathedral in a tiny studio apartment and painted numerous views of the city and copied old master paintings in the Antwerp museums.

After a highly productive year in Antwerp Adolphé left for Paris where he immediately changed his name from Albert John Adolph to Albert Jean Adolphé, and never returned to his family's spelling or pronunciation of his name. Within days of his arrival he had enrolled in Jean-Léon Gérôme's studio at 65 Boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre, and began to prepare for the rigorous entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts .

American Artists in Paris

The streets, studios and art schools of Paris were an irresistible magnet that lured Americans across the ocean by the thousands to experience the engagement of French art with contemporary life, and to learn from the modern and the old masters. This setting couldn't be replicated in any other city in Europe, and the system of instruction in America offered a limited experience for the native artist. American art schools were non-existent in most cities until the second half of the nineteenth century and patronage was limited, while American taste in art was often provincial. For the opportunity to immerse oneself in the contemporary art experience to the fullest, it was necessary to leave home and travel to Paris where instruction was available for all -- in private studios such as Colorossi's or the Academy Julian, or at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. The government sponsored École was open principally to French citizens and exclusively to men until 1897, when women were admitted in very limited numbers. Tuition at the École was free, and French artists under thirty were eligible for the prestigious, three year Prix de Rome.[3] (left: On a Belgian River, oil on masonite, 20 1/8 x 30 1/4 inches)

Those who weren't interested or weren't eligible to enter the École often studied in the private studios mentioned above. At JuIian's for example, a large contingent of the students were foreigners or women who paid tuition at one of twelve branches located around the city. The teaching principles were the same as that of the École and the same teachers came from the École twice a week to critique student work. However, for a modest fee, classes were open to all that applied -- men and women, young and old, with and without developed talent. The private studios were also democratic in other ways, allowing new trends and techniques other than the strictly academic mode taught at the École.[4]

Whether studying in a private studio, an artist's atelier, or at the École des Beaux-Arts students maintained their own personal studio space and living quarters while in Paris. The unknown aspiring young artist often lived and worked in makeshift accommodations on the fifth or sixth floors in buildings without elevators. These inexpensive apartment/studios were often located in the far reaches of Paris -- in the streets of Montparnasse and in the areas only newly taken into the limits of Paris. Many studio complexes, known as cité des artists, accommodated scores of artists. At 9 Rue Campagne-Première was a cité of more than one hundred studios that had been constructed from materials salvaged from buildings torn down after the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle.[5] The crowded quarters provided an active social life that spilled out onto the streets. The Gare Montparnasse brought in laborers from the countryside and cheap cafes and music halls flourished along with the artists' studios in the older structures and neighbors and shop keepers were used to dealing with young Americans who spoke little or no French.

A variety of studio complexes and individual spaces were located all along the Boulevard Montparnasse and the streets leading off to the southwest. A description of a typical studio appeared in the journal The Studio at the turn of the century:

"The room is very much like those of scores of other students. It combines within its four walls the sitting room, studio, Bed-chamber and kitchen, with -- as was once wittily remarked -- The peculiar features and disadvantages of all these. It is fairly Commodious....In the comer of the room stood a stove, on which the owner does (or some obliging model does for him) his cooking, stews his afternoon tea and brews his morning coffee. The bed occupied one corner; a bachelor's bed, which looked as though it was never properly 'made,' and the untidiness of which was after midday disguised by a travelling rug thrown across it. In a word this chambre garnie was very typical of scores of others in the Quarter."[6]

Although living at the very top of a row of tenement buildings had many disadvantages, including the lack of running water, the location also provided the possibility of north studio light.


Adolphé's Studio

When Adolphé first arrived in Paris he lived at 52 Avenue de Maine in the Montparnasse district, within a block oft he Montparnasse Station. He soon moved to a studio at 7 rue Delambre, popular with Americans who inhabited the complex of buildings between the addresses 7 and 11. This location was just two blocks from his first studio, only 5 blocks from the elegant Luxembourg Gardens, and a twenty minute walk to the École des Beaux-Arts and the Louvre.


Copying in the Louvre

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Louvre Museum had a special significance for artists because of the access granted to its enormous collections. Here, the art student could learn from the revered masters of the Renaissance, study the art of the ancients and view contemporary works. Paintings were hung from waist level to ceiling throughout the massive museum and sculptures and casts of ancient works were lined up in a gallery deliberately set up for the artist's use. Studying in the Louvre was a significant component of art education in Paris. Through the controlled process of copying directly from the paintings, Adolphé and thousands of others learned from the masters of the past, while dreaming that their own works might one day be hung for inspection by a new generation. Artists were also subject to the scrutiny and criticism of the passersby as well as to the immediate response of their colleagues -- a learning situation that was not replicated at any other institution in the world. Their copies of familiar masterworks could also be shipped home for sale, adding to the pocketbook of the young men and women who flocked to Paris to enmesh themselves in the intense artistic milieu.

The Louvre was also a place where young artists could hope to meet established figures. A story is told of Adolphé painting in the Louvre one day when a fellow student pointed out James McNeil Whistler, who was also working in the museum. She encouraged Adolphé to approach the famous artist to ask for a critique. Whistler kindly commented on the young artist's copy and then took him into an adjoining gallery where they discussed the paintings. The two met in the Louvre on several occasions to chat more, and Whistler showed up unannounced at AdoIphé's Montparnasse studio on several occasions -- to the astonishment of Adolphé and his friends.


The Luxembourg Gardens

The Luxembourg Gardens, an oasis of green and quiet in the crowded Latin Quarter on Paris's Left Bank, attracted many painters from their high rooftop studios on the nearby boulevards. As well as a picturesque place to paint and sketch, with the Garden' s many sculptures, fountains, and the elegant Luxembourg Palace, it was also a public locale where an aspiring painter like Adolphé could hope to meet more established artists. The long Rue D'Assas bounds the Gardens on the west, were the sculptor Falguière had a studio at number 68. Nearby on the Boulevard St. Michel, at numbers 113 and 115, the sculptor Mercié, had his rooftop studio. Numerous well-known painters, including Harpignies, Aman-Jean and Fantin-Latour also maintained nearby studio apartments. Not every artist was from the neighborhood. American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, whose elegant studio was near the Arc de Triomphe on the Boulevard Berthier, was known to frequent the Gardens to take advantage of the picturesque scenery. (left: Luzembourg Gardens, oil on board, 9 1/8 x 10 7/8 inches)

One day as Adolphé and a young woman friend were strolling about the paths, they happened upon an artist in the midst of painting a familiar scene of visitors, trees and the Pantheon dome. Returning to take a second look at the painting that was clearly superior to the usual park production, Adolphé and his companion were asked by the artist to pose. Happy to do so for a fellow painter, the two remained in position for a number of minutes and then were asked to stroll about and return for a second pose. When finished with their task the two hurried off before names were exchanged. More than a quarter century later Adolphé spotted the painting in the Philadelphia Museum, in an exhibition of works from the Johnson Collection. He recognized himself and the young woman and realized that they had posed for the famous John Singer Sargent![7]

Not all the artists working in the Luxembourg Gardens were as famous as Sargent was. Students like Adolphé, who lived in cramped, noisy quarters in the nearby rooftop studios, must have enjoyed the tranquility of the spot, a haven in which to draw and paint.


In the Studio of Gérôme

In preparation for admission to the École Adolphé studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme in his private studio at 65 Boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre. Gérôme was a feared and much-respected teacher who was dismayed by the popularity of the Impressionists and who forbade his students to work plein air. Although a master who was difficult to please, he was popular with American students who came to Paris to study academic tenets and techniques. Adolphé's teacher at the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Academy, Thomas Eakins, had also studied with Gérôme in his École des Beaux-Arts atelier -- perhaps the reason that Adolphé chose Gérôme to be his teacher. (left: Portrait of Doris Gérôme, oil on canvas, 26 3/8 x 18 3/8 inches)


Studying at the École des Beaux-Arts

The most prestigious art school in the nineteenth century was the Parisian École Nationale et Spéciale des Beaux-Arts. The École is housed in a series of buildings on the Quai Malquais and the Rue Bonaparte on the south bank of the Seine River, directly across from the Louvre. This government school attracted students from around the world and admission for foreign artists was a demanding process, requiring letters of support from government officials, the backing of a master artist, as well as the ability to pass the concours d'admission. This examination included tests in anatomy, ornamental design, perspective and history. The combined score determined rank in choosing the best vantage point for the most difficult part of the test -- a drawing from the antique or life in two six-hour sessions. This was held in en loges -- in walled stalls to prevent communication with other competitors. A relatively small number of Americans who studied in Paris sought admission to the École, often put off by the rigorous exam. The École imprimatur was a valuable prize.

Held twice a year, the concours was prepared for in the private studio of a master and if the examination was passed, admission to the École was granted for a single semester. Passing the exam again could only renew this. As many as 200 aspiring artists applied for admission each semester while only eighty of the contestants were admitted. Foreign students also had to submit a letter from his country's ambassador -- a rigorous process, indeed. Adolphé must have been pleased when he matriculated into the École with a letter of presentation from his master Gérôme and a successful round of the concours. Foreign students were not allowed to compete for the government's most prestigious prize, le grand prix de peinture, or Prix de Rome, but were able to enjoy all other aspects of the school. An official card allowed the student to attend all functions of the school and free entrance to all government-supported museums and collections. When approval for studio enrollment was gained from the minister of fine arts, daily two hour sessions of figure study -- both from antique casts and the live model -- made certain the artists were capable of depicting the mythological, religious and historical scenes that were at the apex of the academic hierarchy of genre, according to the École. Only then would the aspirant be allowed to attend life classes. American artist Kenyon Cox wrote home in 1879:

"The Beaux-Arts is arranged after this fashion. There are several large halls filled with plasters from the Antique and the Renaissance sculptors, and in these halls the primary pupils of all the masters work together, the masters coming around twice a week to criticize. Upstairs there are three ateliers, taught by Gérôme, Cabanal and Lehmann. There the students work from life, the professors coming to criticize the same as in the antique."[8]

Students in each of the Beaux-Art's ateliers worked from October 15th to July 31st, six mornings each week. One week every month was set aside for the study of the antique and drawings were made from École's collection of casts. The vast, central glass roofed court of the École, known as the Grande Salle des Antiquités, contained full scale models of one corner of the Parthenon and two enormous Corinthian columns from the temple of Jupiter Stator in Rome, as well as scores of casts of Roman and Greek sculpture.

The most important occupation was study from the live model, though, and depending on the level of achievement students would draw or paint from a new model each week. Male models were most often used at the École and poses often replicated those of the antique sculpture downstairs. The model arrived early in the morning and the students decided the pose. The teacher visited the studio once or twice a week to inspect student work individually, giving criticism and comments. Twice per month the teacher ranked the students in order of accomplishment and this hierarchy decided where an artist's easel would be placed with respect to the modeling stand for the six-month concours.

The conditions in the studios were overcrowded, smoky and noisy with song and continual conversation among the students. Hazing was part of the initiation process for all new students, and Adolphé must have had to endure this process that could often be amusing, sometimes humiliating. Americans were usually asked to perform a peculiarly American feat, such as Indian wresting or singing American songs while perched on.a high stool of penitence. After surviving the initiation ritual the most recent student would have to perform the most menial tasks, such as stoking the coal stove, until he was replaced by the most recent student promoted from the cast galleries below. Only a few years before Adolphé's arrival, Gérôme's studio was closed for several weeks as the result of a misunderstanding between an American nouveau and the older students. He refused to strip for his initiation ritual and defended himself with an American revolver! The event ended with such noise that École officials shut down the studio.

By the time Adolphé matriculated a revision of the École's curriculum included an afternoon "three arts" session taught by Adolphe Yvon, which met from 1:30 to 3:30. Students received instruction in modeling, elementary architectural principles and decorative composition. Evening classes were also instituted and students met daily from 4:00 to 6:00 to draw from antique casts or living models. These extra offerings meant that Adolphé, who seems to have taken advantage of everything the school offered, made personal contact with artists working in a variety of media. The interaction of painting, sculpture, architecture and the decorative arts also encouraged a collaborative spirit that became a hallmark of the American Renaissance at the turn of the century, and ultimately prepared Adolphé for his interdisciplinary career as a portrait and decorative artist.


The Salon Experience

The mass spectacles of the Paris Salons, the annual or biennial blockbuster exhibitions of recent international art, attracted a diverse international audience. Acceptance into the Salon was a right of passage that was a coveted prize for artists from every country, but for Americans it was critical that they be accepted. Those who gained admission knew that the commercial potential of their work would skyrocket. The Francophilia of American buyers meant that they looked to the Salons, which were supported by the French State, as the international arbiter of taste and quality. Those artists who were rejected were marked as professionally inferior. More than one thousand Americans took part in the Salons from 1872 to 1899 and the French government purchased more than thirty American works during the same period.[9]

Records show that Adolphé exhibited at the Salons of 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902. In '98 he submitted a portrait listed as a drawing in gouache and in '99 three works -- a portrait in oil of M.A. and two drawings -- a copy of Thomas Couture's Romans of the Decadence and a self-portrait in gouache. In 1900 he won an honorable mention for an unidentified portrait.


Pastiche of Thomas Couture's, Romans of the Decadence

Adolphé painted this small-scale pastiche of Thomas Couture's (1815-1879) huge mural-sized painting, The Romans of the Decadence, 1847, now in the Musée d'Orsay in
Paris. Couture's production is 183 1/2 x 305 inches, compared to Adolphé's 12 1/8 x 18 5/8 inches.

Thomas Couture painted the massive canvas in an effort to revive monumental history painting intended for the public realm. He combined history painting with genre historique, as well as meshing Classicism and Romanticism in a work that depicts both eroticism and sexual repression. An unusual work for its time indeed! The painting received much attention at the Salon of 1847 and its immediate success made it one of the most widely admired and most often reproduced paintings of the nineteenth century.

Adolphé would certainly have appreciated Couture's bacchanal for its contemporary style and for its formal and historical antecedents. He may have also considered the painting to be a model and guide for his own work, which also eschewed the precise linearity of the Academic tradition. It is likely too that young Adolphé paid homage to the work, as well, because of the historical link between Couture and many American artists who had preceded Adolphé to Paris. During his long career Thomas Couture was unusually sympathetic to American students and opened a private studio of instruction where many of them studied. George Peter Alexander Healy, one of the most internationally renowned portraitists of the 19th century, a Bostonian who first met Couture in Baron von Gros's studies in 1834, maintained a close friendship with Couture until his death in 1879. Healy, who must have been one of Adolphé's artistic heroes, functioned as an "American Couture," using Couture's artistic style -- strong masses of color, firm outlines and broad patches of light -- as an antidote to the more linear styles rooted in the American tradition. These characteristics are also apparent in Adolphé's painting style.

Back Home Again

Adolphé remained in Paris against his parents' wishes until 1901, when he developed a serious eye problem that forced him to consider returning to Philadelphia. However, his parents had stopped sending money for his support and so he couldn't afford the passage home. The eye problem worsened and he consulted a physician who told Adolphé that he needed immediate surgery or he would risk losing his sight. The surgeon, Dr. DeWecker, agreed to payment of two portraits in lieu of his fee. When Adolphé recovered he still didn't have the passage home and was without means of support. Fortunately, DeWecker thought so much of the portraits that he gave Adolphé $1,000. Instead of returning to Philadelphia he bought a train ticket to Munich. Adolphé arrived in Munich excited about the prospect of visiting the city's museums and eventually received permission to copy in the Alte Pinakothek. He took on a small group of students -- his first teaching position. In the group was Martha Nadler, a young woman of noble birth who fell in love with her young teacher and was determined that they would marry. Adolphé knew their vastly different stations in life and their polar ideas about marriage and family would spell disaster. But Martha was determined that he was the right man for her despite their great differences. Adolphé's misgivings increased when he met her family in Italy while they were vacationing on the Riviera. He painted and avoided social gatherings, while Martha attempted to convince her family that marriage to the young American artist would work. Finally, on December 6, 1902 the couple exchanged vows, but family pressures quickly began to drive a wedge between them. They separated briefly, but Martha insisted on reconciliation and returned to Philadelphia with her new husband.

The couple was met at the pier in Philadelphia by Adolphé's parents who took them by streetcar to their house at 2616 Montgomery Avenue. Martha refused to live in the small house Adolphé provided on a nearby street, and so the couple rented an apartment on Columbia Avenue. After several weeks they separated for good. Martha moved to New York where she taught music and art for many years and the two never met again. (left: In the Shadow of the Tower, 1905, oil on canvas, 20 x 32 1/5 inches, Promised gift of Muriel and Philip Berman)

After his divorce in 1909 Adolphé became increasingly withdrawn. He took over the Montgomery street house when his parents moved to a small apartment, and when his father died his mother moved back into the house until her death in 1920. Adolphé spent his remaining years teaching Decorative Art at the Drexel Institute, the School of Industrial Art and the LaFrance Art institute.[10] He worked on decorative commissions for Frank Furness and other area architects, while teaching and painting portraits and landscapes of the Philadelphia area.[11] At the end of his long life Albert Jean Adolphé was a near recluse, although he continued to work until he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1940.

The many details of Adolphé's life continue to remain in shadow. However, his evocative paintings and drawings speak to his life better than words ever could. The works in this exhibition reveal a man who was productive, authoritative, experimental, curious and empathetic. His gifts as a draftsman and his fluent paint handling are apparent and the many works in the exhibition bring to public awareness again this once commercial and critical success.


1. Little is known about the details of Adolphé's life. A brief, anecdotal biography was written by his housekeeper, Alice Kiesel. Berman Museum of Art, Artists' Files.

2. Much of the material in the following paragraphs is drawn from Kiesel's biography of the artist.

3. Much of the material in this section is drawn from Barbara H. Weinberg's, The Lure of Paris, New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.

4. Fehrer, Catherine, The Julian Academy Paris 1868-1939, New York: Shepherd Gallery, 1989, introduction.

5. Milner, John, The Studios of Paris, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, p.220.

6. Ibid p.30.

7. Kiesel biography.

8. The Lure of Paris, p.19.

9. Fink, Lois Marie, American Art at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons, New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 113.

10. Kiesel biography.

11. National Museum of American Art/National Portrait Gallery Library Vertical Files, Washington, DC.

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