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Allan Freelon: Pioneer African-American Impressionist
September 19 - November 28, 2004


Many people would be hard pressed to name more than a couple of African-American artists. Luminaries like Henry Ossawa Tanner and Horace Pippin, come to mind. Actually, over the past century there were hundreds of highly accomplished Black artists, many who lived in Philadelphia, whose names and artistic accomplishments have been largely forgotten. One of these is Allan Randall Freelon, Sr. (1895-1960) whose work will be exhibited at Woodmere Art Museum beginning September 19, 2004. The Freelon exhibit, initially presented at North Carolina Central University's Art Museum in Durham earlier this year, will be exhibited at several East Coast venues in coming months. (right: Allan Freelon, Boat at Harbor, 1928, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, private collection)

According to W. Douglass Paschall, Woodmere's Curator of Collections, Freelon was an academically trained artist who chose not to follow the polemic path advocated by the New Negro Movement in the 1920s, but to find his own voice. He grew up in Philadelphia in an upwardly mobile, middle-class family, where both art and education were much valued.

His early talent won him a full scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) and he later earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a masters of fine arts from Temple's Tyler School of Art.

Freelon served in the U.S. Army in World War I where he rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant. In 1919, following the armistice, he began teaching art in the Philadelphia public schools. Two years later, his talent as a teacher and artist earned him an appointment as supervisor of art instruction for the school district. He was the first African-American to hold such a distinguished position here or anywhere in the U.S. According to Paschall, Freelon believed that everyone could benefit from the study of art and he was committed to the idea that teachers of art appreciation should be practicing artists.

While pursuing his educational administrative career, Freelon continued to work as an artist and to further his knowledge of contemporary art, particularly the European Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. For three years beginning in 1927, he studied at the Barnes Foundation. "His exposure to works by Matisse, Renior, and Cezanne had a significant influence on his art," said Paschall.

During the school district's summer breaks, Freelon traveled to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he pursued his interest in landscape painting. He studied there with Emile Gruppe, who emphasized sound drawing and bold use of colors. More important, however, was his work with Hugh Breckenridge, a distinguished teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, who also summered in Gloucester. Breckenridge had established himself early in the Philadelphia art scene as an accomplished Impressionist painter.

"Freelon's harbor scenes of the 1930s reveal a strong Breckenridge influence," Paschall said. "His use of color is remarkable, the equal of his teacher's."

While Freelon chose not to follow the artistic path of other African-Americans of his day, he was very aware of the artistic renaissance centered in New York's Harlem and exhibited his paintings with these artists. In 1935, Freelon produced a work strongly condemning racial oppression for the NAACP-sponsored exhibit called Barbecue - American Style on the injustice of lynching. Freelon disagreed with Alain Locke, a leader in the Harlem Renaissance, who believed that Black artists should look exclusively to Africa for inspiration. Freelon believed Black artists, like their white contemporaries, should follow an independent and self-realized course.

Freelon first exhibited in New York in 1921 at the 135th Street (Harlem) Branch of The New York Public Library. The Harmon Foundation, established by real estate tycoon William E. Harmon in 1922, began a series of annual art exhibits in 1928. Freelon was one of its regular exhibitors, and it helped to establish his position as one of the premier artists of the period. In 1929, the Harmon Foundation mounted a traveling exhibit that toured the country. Freelon's paintings received considerable negative criticism until the exhibit reached the National Museum of American Art, where his landscapes were praised.

A member of the Tra Club, a group of Philadelphia artists and their supporters, Freelon exhibited in its annual shows in the 1930s with local artists such as Dox Thrash, Sam Brown, John T. Harris, Elizabeth T. Budd, Edwin Francis Hill, and James Taylor. In 1937, The Pyramid Club was founded here. Blacks were excluded from membership in the city's white clubs, so it provided a place for prominent leaders in the Black community, like Freelon, to meet, socialize, and network. The Pyramid Club began sponsoring an annual invitational art exhibit in 1940, and Freelon was asked to speak at the inaugural event. This recognition placed him among the elite members of the Philadelphia Black community of the day. He spoke about the role of the Black artist and his influence in current events. His considerable success brought many more lecture opportunities.

Freelon studied and worked with two of Philadelphia's greatest printmakers, Earl Horter and Dox Thrash, and printmaking became an important part of his artistic expression. In 1921, Freelon was the first African-American to become a member of the Print Club of Philadelphia. The Woodmere exhibit includes a number of Freelon prints.

Freelon owned a farm near Telford, Montgomery County, called Windy Crest. Here he operated a studio where he produced most of his paintings and prints. He also taught classes here in drawing, painting, and printmaking to racially mixed student groups.

While most of Freelon's works are in private collections, the Philadelphia Museum of Art owns two prints and Woodmere owns another. The exhibition organized by North Carolina Central University's Art Museum includes forty paintings and prints largely selected from works owned by the Freelon family. Concurrent with this show, Woodmere will exhibit works by Freelon's contemporaries, his teachers, and other African-American artists with Philadelphia roots.

by Jim Weaver

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