Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art

Loretto, PA



Following is an essay titled "A Matter of Style: Artistic Influences and Directions in 20th-Century Pennsylvania Painting," by Michael A. Tomor, PhD, Executive Director, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, reprinted with permission of the author. The essay is excerpted from the 2001 exhibition catalogue titled ".Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism in Pennsylvania Painting, 1950-2000." (See our illustrated article, Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism in Pennsylvania Painting, 1950-2000 (3/30/01), covering the exhibition at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, with links to over 30 other selected articles on Pennsylvania representational art from this magazine.) The exhibition and catalogue was organized by a curatorial committee including Michael A. Tomor, PhD, chair, Executive Director, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art; John Vanco, Director, Erie Art Museum; and Bruce Katsiff, Director/CEO, James A. Michener Art Museum. The ISBN number of the 71-page catalogue is 0-9700995-3-3. The catalogue contains two introductory essays, essays on 22 artists, artists' biographies, and numerous color illustrations.


A Matter of Style: Artistic Influences and Directions in 20th-Century Pennsylvania Painting

by Michael A. Tomor, PhD


"Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism in Pennsylvania Painting, 1950-2000" explores the tradition of Realism both as a foundation and as a direction for the painting of select Pennsylvania artists in the last half of the 20th century. A distinctly Pennsylvanian educational tradition influenced American art significantly during that century, and has influenced generations of artists, setting public standards for criticism and aesthetic evaluation. The Commonwealth thus holds a prominent place in the development of Realism in American painting, and this exhibition provides an opportunity to examine contemporary works of art within this specific historical context.

The exhibition looks at this history through the exemplary work of nationally and internationally recognized artists who reached their mature style after 1950 and who were born and educated in Pennsylvania or who resided in Pennsylvania during their professional careers. Although stylistically disparate, each artist's work is firmly based on the foundations of representational art, and each has influenced and contributed to national movements in modern art. By placing their work in the greater context of American art, this exhibition sets out to assess how art evolved in Pennsylvania from mid-century to the millennium and to suggest how it may develop in the 21st century from the traditions established by Pennsylvania's most significant artists and teachers.

Drawing on traditional presentations of design, composition, and perspective, the work of the generation of Pennsylvania painters educated in the l950s integrates the new stylistic directions of modern American Realism. The sharp focus and absolute clarity of Photorealism pervade the traditional Pennsylvania subject matter of Neil Welliver and Barkley Hendricks. Sidney Goodman paints the figure and landscape in a realistic, representational tradition but, with his use of strong chiaroscuro and bold oblique lines that dramatically rake the surface of his pictures, assumes a vocabulary and composition reminiscent of the Baroque. The idealized classical composition and presentation shared by Bo Bartlett, Martha Erlebacher, and Nelson Shanks also employ a dramatic approach to Realism in the Baroque style.

To provide access to Pennsylvania's artistic traditions in communities where such experience is not easily accessible, many rural institutions throughout the Commonwealth dedicate a large percentage of their exhibition calendar to the art of Pennsylvania. This exhibition was developed by the fine arts and education curators and the directors of rural Pennsylvania museums: the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, the Erie Art Museum, and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Loretto. Together, we have collaborated to bring Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism in Pennsylvania Painting, 1950-2000 to the communities of the Keystone State.


Stylistic Origins before 1950

The stylistic origins of 19th-century still life, portrait, and landscape painting can be traced to the aesthetic foundation brought to the New World by European settlers. Western European art and training formed the basis for artistic education in America's academies and provided stylistic direction for American artists.

In the mid-I9th century, it was not uncommon for aspiring American artists to travel to Europe to complete the training they had received at such institutions as Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts or New York's National Academy of Design. A traditional academic education in Düsseldorf, Paris, or Munich was considered essential for establishing a sound artistic foundation.

From about 1840 to 1860, the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany symbolized to Americans the highest quality and professionalism in painting. Düsseldorf was identified with a rigorous approach to art, from the creation of closely observed and sentimental genre scenes to idealized history paintings. Moreover, the Romantic qualities of the art associated with the Düsseldorf Academy were very popular with I9th-century Americans.

Using theatrical lighting techniques and the traditional academic standards established by Roman engineers in the second century BC, 19th-century painters were instructed to compose landscapes, still lifes, and portraits according to mathematical principles. To create the illusion of perspective, artists used diagonal lines that met at a single point in the middle ground and crossing parallel planes that retreated from the picture surface. To suggest a distant world hidden from the naked eye, they obscured the middle or background of the composition by creating a foggy or smoky atmosphere. The introduction of landscape classes at the Düsseldorf Academy in 1893, in addition to courses in still life and the human figure, combined traditional practices with a new interest in Realism and in capturing tangible, human situations. Realism provided artists with an alternative to the depiction of historical, religious, and political subjects and events.

In the 1870s, the rigid theatricality and one-point perspective taught at the Düsseldorf Academy declined in popularity, to be replaced by a growing interest in the Barbizon school of Realism. Artists began to seek instruction in Berlin, Munich, and Paris, then in the process of becoming the art capital of Europe. Inspired by the early work of Courbet and Manet, the new French school concentrated on the effects of light on surfaces at a given moment in time, leading to the Impressionism of Monet and Renoir. By 1890, the Academie Julian had branch studios throughout Paris, where aspiring American artists sought instruction. Leon Bonnat, known for his vigorous brushwork, counted many Pennsylvanians among his pupils. The influential Thomas Couture, who taught Edouard Manet and Jean-François Millet and who emphasized the artist's immediate impressions and the value of the sketch, also mentored Pennsylvania artists. The salons, however, considered the landscape of less importance than the figure study, and many Pennsylvania artists, many of whom wished to paint intimate pastoral scenes and forest interiors, followed the French Impressionist painters to the Barbizon art colony in the forests of Fontainbleau.

As American artists returned home to study and teach at the National Academy of Design in New York and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, they exchanged information about styles and techniques they had learned in Europe. Though those two cities were the principal art centers of the time, a number of Pennsylvania painters preferred to remain in Pittsburgh, where prominent industrialists like Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie provided patronage as well as friendship.

Both European influences and the burgeoning interest in the American landscape influenced the direction that American painting would take in the late I9th century. European sensibilities were incorporated into a developing, yet distinctively American style that aimed to convey an image of a country unsullied by civilization. Pristine nature, rather than historic art and architecture, provided the mythic identity of America.

Thus, an iconography of nationalism, based on the landscape, developed along with the westward expansion, and such late I9th-century painters as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran provided their countrymen with an otherwise rare opportunity to experience the Western wilderness. Their large canvases portray the West in mythic dimensions, evoking a sense of the spiritual inherent in the land itself. At the same time, however, in the industrial East, a distinctly different approach to nature emerged. Back East, painters contemplating the imminent destruction of the remaining wilderness tended to render their natural surroundings in more measured tones than did their mythicizing Western counterparts.

The Hudson River School, the first recognized and coherent school of American painting, adopted the Northern European ideal of spiritual light. Luminism, which reached its peak in the I860s and is exemplified in the work of Benjamin West, was based on the philosophy of transcendentalism that saw light as revealed truth.

Concurrently in Europe, and specifically in France, artists began exploring light not for any universalizing principles, but for its pictorial, coloristic, and poetic qualities. Finding inspiration in the somber works of Rembrandt and Ruisdael, these landscapists evoked the dark, glowing tonalities of the old masters, and their shadowy landscapes of green, brown, and amber depict nature as refuge, though not necessarily of the spiritual or religious sort, as Luminism had.

Pennsylvania artists were aware of both traditions. In the mid-19th century, the Pennsylvanians' work borrowed equally from the Hudson River School and the Realist landscape painters of the Barbizon School, but by the end of the century the painters of the Commonwealth show a much closer affinity to the Barbizon School. Their canvases, generally modest in size, record a particular time and place while clearly reaffirming the American myth of the wilderness. Their atmospheric quality, achieved through the use of painterly lighting effects, implies a dialogue with, even a recovery of, nature.

The first museum and organized school of painting instruction in the nation opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1805. Founders Charles Willson Peale and William Rush had both been trained in the Western European tradition of Neo-classicism, one of the foundations of Realism, and the standards their academy set were based on European prototypes of academic Realism. The Academy served as the model for all other institutions that opened in the United States during the second half of the 19th century. In 1865, the Pittsburgh School of Design for Women opened, and in I900, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie established Carnegie Mellon. Pittsburgh Institute of Art, the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (Moore College of Art and Design), the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, and Temple University's Tyler School of Art followed. Pennsylvania's institutions of higher learning provided a foundation for public standards of artistic excellence.

Core curricula adopted by these prestigious institutions, based on the study of antique casts, life drawing, and anatomy, promoted a basic philosophy of Realism. In Philadelphia, Thomas Eakins returned from his European travels to direct the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Drawing on his own study of Realists Gustave Courbet and Théodore Rousseau, he established a foundation for the Academy's painting curriculum that can be identified in popular art movements of the past fifty years. In western Pennsylvania, Realism was introduced by George Hetzel, himself inspired by the Romantic movement of Luminism as well as the plein air techniques of the Barbizon school. Hetzel founded the Pittsburgh School of Design, where he implemented a Realist philosophy of painting that directly affected generations of contemporary Pittsburgh artists.

As European styles changed, America followed. Impressionism -- the style developed in the I870s by French artists interested in documenting a fleeting moment by capturing the play of light and color -- became fashionable in the United States in the 1890s. By the end of the century, Pennsylvania painters, too, had adopted the quick brushwork and soft pastel palette of the Impressionists. In the I920s, a new style of landscape painting, called the American Scene movement, emerged, to be followed in the next decade by Urban Realism and Regionalism, which developed in response to the political and economic crises of World War I and the Great Depression. Rather than depicting the American landscape as quiet and pristine, artists of these two schools portrayed industrial America.

Out of this artistic atmosphere emerged the artists celebrated in this exhibition. Pennsylvania artists trained in Neo-classicism and Realism also developed a vocabulary that altered the direction of modern art. In the I930s and 1940s, Andy Warhol, Philip Pearlstein, Alice Neel, Andrew Wyeth, Ben Kamihira, and Neil Welliver studied the works of earlier Pennsylvania artists like Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri, and John Sloan as they developed personal styles. Warhol, educated in Pittsburgh, is one of the most celebrated figures associated with Pop Art. His early exposure to Pennsylvania Realism influenced his work, and despite the fact that he pursued his artistic career in New York City, where he was introduced to the work of such abstract European artists as Wilhem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Piet Mondrian, and Josef Albers, none of them had a significant impact on his work. Alice Neel, who studied at the Philadelphia School of Design, and Philip Pearlstein, who studied at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Technology, persevered with figuration at the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Although seen as a traditionalist, Andrew Wyeth, perhaps the Pennsylvania artist most closely associated with 20th-century Realism after World War II, imparts his compositions with a modern perspective, as evidenced by the compressed space suggestive of a camera's monocular vision and the evocation of nostalgia for a vanishing way of life.

At the start of the 21st century, the lines that distinguish national, state, and local styles begin to blur. The works selected for this exhibition speak of the last unifying vision that has, for centuries, linked our Commonwealth's great artistic heritage. Geographic borders are becoming imaginary lines that designate financial rather than cultural distinctions, and communications through the media and new technology have opened up isolated rural regions. Although the notion of a state style becomes more problematic in the 21st century, Realism will forever speak to the artistic past, present, and future of Pennsylvania.


Read more about the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/2/11

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