Collector’s Corner: Lasting Impressions
A little-known group of Bucks County artists called the Pennsylvania impressionists are being rediscovered
In winter months, Edward Redfield would trudge out to the woods near his home in Center Bridge on
In winter months, Edward Redfield would trudge out to the woods near his home in Center Bridge on the banks of the Delaware River, carrying fifty pounds of easel, canvas, paint and brushes. On blustery days, he set aside his easel and strapped his canvas to the trunk of a tree. For eight-hour stretches, Redfield attacked the canvas with quick, thick brushstrokes, not even stopping to eat.
Collectors love to recount these details about brusque, talented Redfield, as does Brian H. Peterson, senior curator of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown and the most widely recognized scholar of the Pennsylvania impressionists, an art colony that thrived in Bucks County from around 1900 to 1950. When Peterson began studying the group in the early 1990s, few art historians knew anything about Redfield or Daniel Garber, the group’s other acknowledged leader, and their brethren. “In terms of public consciousness,” Peterson says, “there was little awareness.”
The group has a name, Peterson thought, so they must have some stylistic unity. He did discover some common threads: Most worked en plein air, although not all to Redfield’s hardy extremes. Each painted landscapes, though not all did so exclusively, and some only did so occasionally. Many were fascinated by light’s effect on surfaces. In general, though, each has a strong, individual voice. “It took me a little while to realize this was a good thing,” says Peterson. “If they were all slavishly copying each other, we wouldn’t care about them.”
Their contemporaries, the ones who awarded them prestigious spots in juried exhibitions and gold medals at national expositions, wouldn’t have cared either. They only stopped caring when modernism and other movements swept through the art world in the 1930s and washed the landscape artists out to sea. But you only have to look at recent auction prices to see that the Pennsylvania impressionists have experienced a remarkable resurgence. In 2003, Garber’s Byram Hills, Springtime sold for $1.1 million at Sotheby’s. In May 2005, Redfield’s Brooklyn Bridge at Night sold at Sotheby’s for a hair under one million.
Even canvases by lesser-known artists in the group are selling for between 10 and 20 times more than they did in the 1980s.
Alasdair Nichol, senior vice president of Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia, explains the revival by pointing to the popularity in the 1980 and ’90s of American impressionists like Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. When those artists’ prices went through the roof, people began to look for works that could compare. “Collectors discovered the Pennsylvania impressionists,” says Nichol. “They felt they were undervalued compared to other American painters who were reaching stratospheric values at auction.”
Louis Della Penna and his wife, Carol, began buying New Hope artists when the couple moved to Bucks County in 1986. “It adds to the excitement that we can see the locations in the paintings,” he says. Their first purchase was a house painting by Fern I. Coppedge, who’s known for her bright, fauvist colors and primitive style. They bought it for $2,000 at an estate sale. Since then, it’s been resold twice, most recently for $56,000. Coppedge remains one of Della Penna’s favorites, but his most beloved work is Hillside, painted by Charles Rosen in 1917. It’s one that he can’t bear to lend out.
Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, whose gift of 62 paintings forms the core of the Michener Art Museum’s collection, bought their first Redfield about 15 years ago at Alderfer Auction & Appraisal in Hatfield, because it reminded Gerry of the farm where he grew up, nine miles north of Lambertville. He knew of the Pennsylvania impressionists, but he didn’t know much about them. He talked to gallery owners and other collectors and read about the artists. He learned that they were attracted to New Hope’s lush landscape, the area’s Quaker ideals and its proximity to New York and Philadelphia. Many studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Garber also taught at PAFA for 49 years.
Gerry felt an instant attraction to Redfield’s work, and eventually he came to appreciate Garber as well as John Folinsbee and William Lathrop. “I like the variety,” he says. He acquired works from Alderfer, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Freeman’s as well as from Malcolm Polis’s Plymouth Meeting Gallery and from private collectors.
Beginning collectors do well to learn the artists and the market before they buy. Go to museums, talk to dealers, read up on artists and go to auctions. Della Penna recommends visiting the Michener Art Museum’s Doylestown and New Hope locations He returned to the Michener’s inaugural exhibit between 20 and 30 times to study the works of arists he liked.
The best place to get a deal on a painting from the New Hope school might be out-of-state, where people aren’t as familiar with these artists’ rising profiles. In the first half of the century, these artists exhibited and competed across the country — it’s possible they left works behind throughout the West and Midwest. A snowy Walter Emerson Baum painting surfaced in Seattle in 2002 on Antiques Roadshow.
After 16 years studying the Pennsylvania impressionists, Peterson is not surprised by the revival. “I think they deserve it,” he says. “I’d like to believe that in the art world, the cream always rises to the top.”
Where to Brush Up
Here’s where you can get your fill of more Pennsylvania impressionism.
“Poetry in Design, The Art of Harry Leith-Ross,” through October 1 at the James A. Michener Art Museum’s New Hope location; October 28-March 4, 2007 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown
“Form Radiating Life, The Paintings of Charles Rosen,” October 13-January 28 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in New Hope
“Daniel Garber: Romantic Realist,” January 28-May 6, 2007, co-hosted by the James A. Michener Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). The PAFA will exhibit Garber’s works prior to 1929, and the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown will show Garber’s works after 1930
Gratz Gallery, New Hope 215-862-4300, gratzgallery.com
James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown 215-340-9800, New Hope 215-862-7633, michenerartmuseum.org
Jim’s of Lambertville, Lambertville 609-397-7700
Newman Galleries, Philadelphia 215-563-1779, newmangalleries.net
Plymouth Meeting Gallery, Plymouth Meeting 610-825-9068 artnet.com (by appointment only)
Area Auction Houses
Alderfer Auction & Appraisal, Hatfield 215-393-3000, alderferauction.com
Pook & Pook, Downingtown 610-269-4040, pookandpook.com
Freeman’s, Philadelphia 215-563-9275, freemansauction.com. Freeman’s holds three major auctions for paintings each year, in June, November and December.