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Roy C. Nuse (1885-1975)


Roy C. Nuse (1885-1975) played an integral part in both the Bucks County and Philadelphia art scenes. A member of the Pennsylvania Impressionist art colony, his work reflected his traditional training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he also taught for 29 years. For the first time, an exhibition of his figurative and landscape paintings will be on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum beginning February 9 and continuing through May 12, 2002.

Erika Smith, curator of the exhibition, remarked, "Nuse began his formal training at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, embarking on what would be a lengthy training in the academic tradition that spanned more than a decade of study at several art schools." Following his marriage to fellow academy student Ellen Guthrie, the couple moved to Bucks County so that Nuse could attend the renowned Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he studied with Daniel Garber. Nuse developed his talents and adopted the favorite method of the Impressionists -- painting outdoors directly from nature. (left: Age of Speed, 1920, oil on canvas, 35.25 x 40 inches, James A. Michener Art Museum, Museum Purchase with assistance from the Nuse family)

Nuse earned top honors at PAFA, winning the First Toppan Prize and two Cresson European Traveling Fellowships among others. However, the single most important element in Nuse's life continued to be a devotion to his family, and to the land around his adopted home of Bucks County, which became an ongoing source of inspiration throughout his career.

Nuse's known work numbers over 250 paintings and drawings covering some seven decades from 1905 through 1975. The works in this retrospective exhibition reveal the Nuse family lovingly rendered at various ages, and landscapes that are personal and familiar -- almost always his own gardens, streams, bridges, and quarry, which were his everyday views.

The portraits are mostly of family members, including each of his many grandchildren as they came along, and a few close neighbors. Starting at an early age and continuing late into his career, Nuse created an interesting group of self-portraits. A second group of figurative paintings included several series of figures in landscape settings, particularly "boys in the glen," which he considered among his most important work. The remainder of figures in the landscape included paintings of his wife and children in flower-filled gardens. One final group of figure paintings is a sequence of genre scenes portraying life on a typical farm in Bucks County.

His landscape paintings are among his most lyrical and many of the works employ the broken brush strokes of the Impressionist style, though he was equally proficient in painting in a smoothly finished way that showed little evidence of brushwork.

Nuse exhibited at many venues including the Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; The Cincinnati Art Museum; The Pennsylvania Academy, and many others.

Nuse's love of family inspired his passion for painting. In the end he gave nearly all of his works to his children, which were then handed down through generations, and now are finally brought together for this exhibition in his honor.

Roy C. Nuse -- A Gentleman of the Old School

(from the exhibition catalogue)


In the early twentieth century Bucks County was home to a large group of painters who would later become known as the Pennsylvania Impressionists. The rolling countryside of the area, composed of gentle hills and valleys, was interlaced with canals and quarries, and had as its defining characteristic, the delicately wending Delaware River. The landscape thus provided an endless array of scenic spots to depict on canvas or paper. As a finishing touch, an ever-changing color palette, provided by the four obliging seasons of the northeastern United States, made the area an artist's Arcadian delight. Farmsteads and land were inexpensive enough and affordable for even an artist's sometimes-uneven income, as long as he or she was possessed of a bit of pioneering self-sufficiency.

It is not surprising then, that an artist colony should spring up in an area so inviting to painters whose chief interest lay in portraying landscapes, and in creating them outdoors (known as plein air painting.) This early form of "networking" with others in the same occupation, replicated by numerous art colonies across America, was doubly attractive in Bucks County because of its proximity to the major art centers of New York and Philadelphia, as well as to the Carnegie International Exhibitions in Pittsburgh. In an age when overnight delivery of packages by secure carriers did not yet exist, artists needed to furnish their own transportation -- for heavy paintings as well as themselves -- to participate in exhibitions or to show their work to prospective gallery owners. These were virtually the only methods available to artists for securing a sale and establishing a reputation in the contemporary art scene. It was through frequent entering of work into exhibitions that an artist's chances to become well known to private collectors and museums were increased.

For an artist, being awarded a distinctive prize in an important exhibition in a major city could prove to be a breakthrough for his or her career. It was equally vital for artists to attend exhibitions to see the work of their contemporaries.

This lovely county adjacent to Philadelphia, and easily accessible to New York City by rail line filled one further need for artists, a quite important one. Throughout the history of art, the fact that recognition for one's work did not always come easily or early in a career meant that the artist had to seek wages elsewhere. Often, the monetary compensation that would allow a painter to support a family through sales of paintings did not occur at all during the artist's lifetime. It was necessary, then for artists to find a so-called day job -- a necessity familiar to artists of all disciplines.

Two of the country's most prestigious art academies, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the National Academy of Design in New York City, were located within easy travel distance for the Bucks County artist. For many painters and sculptors, teaching art was an appealing way to earn a living while staying connected to their profession. A coveted position of instructor at a premier American art school allowed the artist to hobnob with other significant artists of the day who came to teach or lecture, to travel abroad with students in tow, and to feel that he or she was an influence on future generations of artists. Not to be discounted was the added benefit of almost certain exhibition opportunities. The academies themselves, with several yearly exhibitions each, were among the most important venues for American art, especially in the early twentieth century. In fact, while a number of the Pennsylvania Impressionist painters graduated from or taught at the Pennsylvania Academy (or both), those artists working in Bucks County who were not professionally affiliated with the art schools almost always sought to exhibit their work there.

The fortuitous confluence of natural beauty, metropolitan proximity, and the company of like-minded people provided the incentive for several artists to settle in Bucks County at the beginning of the last century. This small nucleus of painters drew others to the area through word of mouth, and by exhibiting their landscape paintings outside the region, thereby advertising its charm. More and more painters came to visit, and many chose to stay.

It was natural for some of the newly transplanted artists to form an artist colony, with its implications of social and professional cohesiveness. And the New Hope Colony (as it was then called) helped to establish the reputation of the region as the member artists' paintings were increasingly accepted at major exhibitions. But the art colony does not tell the whole story of Pennsylvania Impressionism.

Many talented and hardworking artists painting in the county chose not to join the New Hope Colony. Moreover, lack of participation in the artist colony did not necessarily mean fewer exhibition opportunities, nor did it prevent an artist from gaining recognition. Edward Redfield (1869-1965) was arguably one of the best known painters among the Pennsylvania Impressionists in his own time. His work was included in many national and international exhibition venues. Redfield was mentioned in contemporary articles and texts as a major American artist. Yet he famously held himself apart from the New Hope Colony, preferring to paint alone and to socialize with his fellow artists infrequently. He neither taught at the Pennsylvania Academy nor encouraged private students.

Although his contemporaries did not always match Redfield's career success, a number of them shared his disinterest in being a member of the art colony. One such artist, for whom the weekly social gatherings of the New Hope group were uninviting, was Roy Cleveland Nuse.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1885, Nuse was the only son of a successful barber. Apparently destined (and willing) to follow in his father's profession, the young Nuse had been training to cut hair from an early age. Fate intervened in the form of an accident and lengthy convalescence suffered by the elder Nuse. Forced to quit school and find work to help support the family, the son took a job in a factory painting lampshades. His talent as an artist became evident and was remarked upon by his colleagues, who encouraged him to take art classes.

In 1905, Nuse enrolled in the Art Academy of Cincinnati, embarking on what would be a lengthy training in the academic tradition, spanning more than a decade of study at several art schools. His experiences at the Cincinnati Academy set the stage for his future education and career patterns. Nuse was a serious student who soon earned scholarships and other accolades. He attended the school for nearly eight years, and held a position as part-time instructor for the last two years. Particularly close to his family, Nuse came home on the weekends to work alongside his father in the barbershop. He met fellow academy student, Ellen Guthrie, with whom he had much in common, and the two were married in 1911.

When the couple moved to Bucks County so that Nuse could pursue his studies at the renowned Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the qualities Nuse had developed in Cincinnati grew into the characteristics that became the hallmarks of his student and professional career. As a pupil, he absorbed the serious and methodical attention to the traditional study of art as taught in the premier American academies. Classes at Cincinnati had included nature in the realist manner. Sometimes classes were taken outdoors to paint or sketch directly from nature. One of Nuse's instructors at Cincinnati was Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), a leading American artist who brought to America the so-called Munich-style of painting with its emphasis on portrait and figure work, and a palette using strong, dark colors. Duveneck's skillful draftsmanship was not lost on his student.

At the Pennsylvania Academy, Nuse found, as he had expected, classes centered around figure study, with the added bonus of anatomy lessons, sometimes using cadavers to reinforce the importance of artistic realism. He studied with Daniel Garber (1880-1958), a beloved teacher who, like Duveneck, was a master figurative painter. Garber, too, had studied with Duveneck at the Cincinnati Academy in the late 1890s. However, Garber was also a landscape artist of growing renown and, like Nuse lived and painted in Bucks County. In Philadelphia, Nuse had more opportunities to be exposed to one of the Impressionists' favorite methods, that is, painting outdoors directly from nature. Not content with sending classes outside to paint once in a while, the Pennsylvania Academy had a full-fledged summer school in nearby Chester Springs. Classes there included lessons in both landscape and figurative painting, and Nuse participated in them for many years, first as a student and later as a teacher. Nuse remained at the school for three years, earning the top awards available, including the First Toppan Prize and the Thouron Prize (both in 1918), the Cresson European Traveling Fellowship (1917 and 1918), and the Fellowship Gold Medal (1940). In 1925 Nuse was hired as instructor as he had done at the Ohio Academy.

Beyond his commitment to assiduous study and meritorious performance at both academies, the single most important element in Nuse's life continued to be a devotion to his family, and to the land around his adopted home in Bucks County. This quality of familial loyalty (extended also to a few carefully chosen friends and neighbors) and the love of his own lands colored every aspect of his career, as well as his private life.

Several months' stay in Europe to see the paintings of the great masters was long considered an important way to round out an American art student's training. At the Pennsylvania Academy, students could be awarded the coveted Cresson European Traveling Fellowship, which underwrote the expenses for such a tour. Many of the Pennsylvania Impressionists who studied in Europe reveled in the camaraderie and stylistic influences they found on their travels abroad. Nuse won two Cressons, making the trips in 1922 and 1923. While he delighted in seeing the original paintings, and wrote touchingly about the Degas (1834-1917) works he encountered in the Luxembourg Museum in Holland, Nuse's most compelling notes lamented his absence from his family. In fact, he cut short his second trip and returned home, largely unchanged in his style of painting. He never again traveled abroad or even far from his home in Rushland. Many years later, in a reminiscence compiled by his granddaughter, Robin Nuse, the artist stated, "I have not had to and would not choose to leave my own peaceful Rushland Valley, where both the Neshaminy and Mill Creeks pass through the rolling farmland and steep hills for many a canvas subject."

Back in the United States, Nuse began his appointment as part-time instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy, and he continued to pursue his career with the same sense of seriousness he had displayed as a student. As a strict proponent of the academic style of training, he taught his pupils to paint figures and landscapes with close attention to well-developed drawing skills. In his own work, Nuse painted prolifically, as he believed that only through constant practice could an artist achieve a masterful style.

Nuse's known body of work numbers over 250 paintings and drawings that have been identified and catalogued to date, and covers some seven decades from 1905 until his death in 1975. His oeuvre includes figurative work (portraits, figures in everyday settings, and figures in pastoral scenes) and landscape paintings. Missing from the documented list are numerous portrait commissions, obliquely mentioned in his papers but about which scant records were kept.

His family had grown to include six children, and these along with his wife and a few close neighbors were among his favorite models used over and over again to populate a majority of his paintings. A quick perusal of the works in the retrospective exhibition and in this catalogue reveals the Nuse family lovingly rendered at various ages. As though seeing giant photograph album pages, the viewer comes to recognize Dorothy in the rose garden, or Paul fishing in a stream or the siblings at play in the barn. His children were especially lovingly and frequently rendered on canvas. As Nuse recalled later, "I used my children as models because they were close to me." The statement implies a loving fondness for his brood and not only their proximity as handy subjects.

Even the Nuse landscapes have as their subject matter a similar quality of the personal and the familiar to the artist. Indeed they are in nearly every case his own gardens, and the streams, bridges, houses and the quarry that surrounded his own home, and which were his everyday views. A glance at the titles of Nuse's paintings informs the viewer of the names of several neighboring farms and creeks. Like the seventeenth century Dutch artists, of whom it is commonly remarked that they painted themselves into history (that is, they were the first artists who unabashedly used their own houses and family members as subject matter for their paintings) so did Nuse record, year after year, the peaceful Rushland Valley in which he lived.

Nuse's figurative work can be divided into three groups: portraiture, figures in landscape settings, and genre scenes (images of everyday life). The lengthy academic training, combined with his innate talent allowed Nuse to become adept at the traditional portrait. This style shows the subject's head and shoulders, with the sitter facing forward or in profile, usually with a plain background. Academic portraits are often more dignified than lively with character. However, Nuse was frequently able to capture a sensitivity of expression in the portraits, usually around the eyes and mouth of his models that revealed a genuine personality and go well beyond a simple likeness.

Due to his perceptive images, Nuse was successful at attracting commissions for his portraiture to supplement his income as a teacher. While not much is known about the extent of his commission work, several newspaper clippings have survived among his papers that document the unveiling of a portrait painting depicting a well-known Philadelphia surgeon. In fact, Nuse was known to have painted the portraits of several noted physicians for Jefferson Medical College (now University) and Hahneman Medical School, both in Philadelphia.

Among the documented portraits are mostly family members, including each of his many grandchildren as they came along, and a few close neighbors. Starting at an early age and continuing late into his career, Nuse created an interesting group of self-portraits. Following in the tradition of well-known historic artists such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Nuse's images of himself portray the artist wearing various hats and painting clothes (though always sporting a tie), and sometimes holding objects such as a brush or his pipe. His expression is usually serious, meeting the viewer's eyes directly, but sometimes his gaze is slightly sardonic, revealing a gentle humorous nature. These charcoal drawings and paintings are among his most compelling portraits.

The second group of Nuse's figurative paintings included several series that place his figures in landscape settings. Among them was a succession of images that Nuse called "boys in the glen," and he considered these to be among his most important work. Again following a long academy tradition, this series placed a group of figures (in this case children), unclothed as nymphs, walking or sitting near shimmering pools of water or in woodland tableaux. Although painted in realistic nature scenes, these images have a slightly different feel from his other figurative work. While Nuse still used his own children as models, he draws them more anonymously, and the overall effect is one of innocents in a storybook setting, almost as if we were seeing a fairy tale brought to life. The suggestion of mythological creatures gamboling through the woods is heightened by Nuse's use of sunlight as an overall pattern, dappling water, trees, and children alike.

The remainder of Nuse's work depicting figures in the landscape includes many paintings of his wife and children in flower-filled gardens. An avid gardener, Nuse designed and cultivated the flower beds in which he then placed his figures to paint. The flowers were used variously to provide deep colors, or delicate patterning, and as strong vertical lines against which the figures stand out in sharp contrast. A particularly lovely version of this style is "Dorothy: Rose Garden," in which he places the child as though she has sprouted up among the roses herself. In The Drawing Class (anecdotally thought to portray fellow Pennsylvania Academy instructor, Hugh Breckenridge giving lessons at Chester Springs in the summer), Nuse places the gaily-clad women students at their easels so that they resemble bunches of flowers dotting the grasses.

One final group of figure paintings in Nuse's body of work is a sequence of genre scenes portraying life on a typical farm in Bucks County. Far from showing the toils that these folks might sometimes have endured, these gentle, rustic images illustrate the pleasurable events on a peaceful farm. Chickens gathered like bright feathers around the skirts of the artist's wife, a neighbor stopping by for a chat, or children at play in the barn are some of the episodes Nuse gleaned from his own life.

Through this group of paintings Nuse recreates for the viewer the lives of his own family and friends and thereby, the tenor of the times in which he lived. The qualities that Nuse admired -- a simple life among lovely lands and familiar company -- come through most clearly in these paintings because of the artist's skillful focus on his own culture.

The second important category of Nuse's work is his landscape painting, and it is here that he created his most lyrical images. Nuse was absorbed in the methods and mechanics of painting. He had learned, and then taught for twenty-nine years at art academies, and was steeped in the theories that made up realistic nature painting in the Impressionist manner prevalent in his day. The effects of sunlight on trees and streams, on hills in the distance and the nearby quarry, sketched or sometimes painted directly from nature -- these were an endless fascination and source of subject for Nuse. He wrote voluminously about which tones and hues create the receding planes that can turn a flat canvas into a window onto a vista.

In 1936 Nuse in fact published a treatise on pastel painting that provided a thorough and clearly written explanation of how to create landscapes that remain faithful to nature, that is, that depict what the viewer would observe when standing in the same spot. While at first the treatise seems to set down numerous ironclad rules for the student, a generosity of spirit gradually asserts itself in the book. Nuse strongly recommended learning the lessons he has to offer, but then tells the reader not to rely too heavily on the teaching of art, but instead find his own way by constant painting and following his own instincts.

Nuse's own landscape paintings do not follow a monolithic vision in painting style or palette. Many of the works employ the broken brush strokes so commonly associated with the Impressionist manner of painting. And Nuse favored the use of the short, staccato dabs of paint of varying colors and patterns to create textures. This was especially important, as he noted in his book, because it allowed trees and other foreground objects to stand out against the sky. Fellow Bucks County painter Daniel Garber became renowned for this technique, and Nuse praises Garber's work as the quintessential rendering of realistic leaves on trees. Nuse used sunlight and shadows on his landscapes in varying seasons to create scenes so often linked with the Impressionist style.

However, Nuse was equally proficient in painting in a smoothly finished style that showed little evidence of brushwork. And while a pastel-hued or a high-key color palette was frequently used in his paintings, Nuse sometimes painted in a moody style as well. At various times throughout his long career, he also reverted to the darker palette he had learned from Duveneck at Cincinnati. In his painting titled In A Quiet Valley, with its gray tones and forlorn tree-trunk dominating the foreground, he created a palpable feeling of deepening dusk and approaching winter. This work won the highly prized Fellowship Gold Medal Award in the Pennsylvania Academy annual exhibition of 1940, and held a place of honor in the artist's home until his death. Nuse paid public homage in his treatise to John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902), a Connecticut Impressionist painter whose work was decidedly atmospheric, calling him "the most poetic figure of modern times among American painters." Although he embraced the academic tradition of teaching art, Nuse believed that an artist works on an emotional rather than only an intellectual plane. Nuse stated, "Every great painter has had academic training -- either in the studio of a master or in a school." However, he also said, "... the painter feels ... vividly but with his eyes and emotional responses."

As might be expected of a painter for whom gardening was a serious avocation, Nuse's rendering of flowers and trees was particularly realistic and not at all "fanciful." Nuse believed that the painter should properly depict what he saw before him, and not place imaginative objects onto the canvas. In his drawings and paintings, flowers can easily be identified and trees are painted with nearly scientific exactness. Of special note are the willow trees whose drooping branches lend graceful curves to several of his canvases. Nuse was especially fond of sycamore trees because they shed their bark, and so provide natural texture for the artist. Nuse's paintings provide for the modern day viewer a botanical course portraying the flora and fauna prevalent in the twentieth century in the surroundings of his Bucks County home.

The subject matter, location, and style of Nuse's paintings place him squarely among his Pennsylvania Impressionist peers. However, his isolation from the art colony and their exhibitions, and the fact that nearly all of his canvases were painted "at home" may make him appear to have been a recluse. Also, Nuse's often-declared distrust of modern technologies (he despised machinery of any sort and refused to own a car, even when he received one as a gift) might seem to give him a curmudgeonly air. Yet it is with a touch of humor that Nuse says, "I'd run a mile to get away from machines." He is more properly seen as a reserved gentleman with traditional and conservative values who nevertheless inspired many students through a patient and passionate teaching style. Several of his private students remained with him for many years, becoming dear friends, and sixty-two Academy students signed a petition protesting Nuse's resignation from the school in 1954.

Although he did not participate in public or social events in Bucks County, Nuse was far from a hermit. His work was accepted for exhibition in many venues, including the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D. C. (1920, 1926); the Art Institute of Chicago (1920, 1923); the Cincinnati Art Museum (1920-22, 1938); the Carnegie Institute's International Exhibition (1922); and at the Pennsylvania Academy (each year from 1920-1950). Solo exhibitions included The Pennsylvania Academy (1947) and the Faculty Club at the University of Pennsylvania (1984). A complete list of Nuse's exhibition history can be found at the end of this catalogue.

Nuse also had a rather public as well as public-spirited profile in Philadelphia. In 1939 he participated in one of the nation's first televised art lessons, an experiment at the Franklin Institute Science Museum. Nuse also lent paintings to an innovative program at Jefferson Medical College in 1941. The theory was that hanging works of art on the walls of patients' wards might provide a beneficial atmosphere, and enhance the process of healing. He became so interested in the healing aspects of art that he volunteered to give art lectures to the patients so that they could learn more about the paintings newly hung near their beds. In 1966, Nuse supplied several paintings to the Rushland Post Office in support of a beautification of public buildings program instituted by the United States Postal Service.

Nuse's style of painting was clearly Impressionist for several reasons. He painted outdoors most of the time, depicted the visual effects of various weather and seasons on objects in the landscape, and used the broken brush technique favored by the European Impressionists and in colonies across America. Painting only what was evident to his eyes rather than imagined objects, and using the softer colors employed by many Impressionists also places Nuse among these artists. Nuse's paintings became somewhat brighter in color as he grew older but the subject matter remained the same: the lands and people nearest to him, that is, around his home. In this way, he was similar to Garber, whose own estate and family were his favorite painting subjects, as well as French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926), although Nuse adhered more rigidly to hearth and home. He differed from many of his Bucks County contemporaries by also embracing academic portraiture, especially the self-portraits, which were sometimes painted in the darker Duveneck palette throughout his career.

A politely reserved demeanor can often mask an intensely caring and emotional soul. So it was with Roy Nuse, who dressed in his Sunday-best clothes to receive those who came to see his paintings at his home. As an artist he heralded the cherished traditions of the "old school" -- in his teaching, his art, his disposition, and his values. But toward his family he lavished warmth and attention, and he made them a central part of his work as an artist. Nuse's love for his family inspired his passion for painting, and in the end he gave nearly all of his paintings to each of his children. His descendants have treated these gifts as sacred icons, handed down through each generation in the family, and they have celebrated Nuse's own generosity by allowing the Michener Art Museum to bring his work together for this exhibition in his honor.


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