One hundred years ago, Theresa Bernstein's name was as well-known in artistic circles as Robert Henri and John Sloan, Ash Can School artists with whom she frequently exhibited. She was friends with Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis. Yet, inexplicably, today her work is virtually unknown.
The exhibition “Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art,” at Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia, seeks to put things right. Organized by Gail Levin of Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center, it is the first retrospective of Bernstein’s oeuvre. The comprehensive exhibition covers an entire century; the artist painted and exhibited in every decade of the 1900s.
Bernstein was said to “paint like a man” with “masculine vision and vigor.” “The Readers,” (1914) shows visitors in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library, at the time a new local attraction, having opened in 1911. Bernstein shows the lamplight shining on three men who are focused on their books. The brightness reveals the thinning hair of an old man with rounded shoulders, but the confident brushstrokes outlining his hand and bushy black eyebrows suggest inner strength. A younger man’s tilted head causes light to fall on the side of his face. Around the curved couch, another man’s face is entirely in shadows. All of the readers are men except for one woman whose white collar draws the viewer’s eye. An enthusiastic suffragette, Bernstein made the point that women should be welcome in the male domain.
The painting is typical of Bernstein’s earlier work—a loose realism, its light playing on dark earth tones and shadows. Like other Ash Can artists, Bernstein rejected the light palette and leisurely scenes of impressionism for gritty workaday views of New York City. Born in Krakow, Poland, she grew up in Philadelphia and attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design) before moving to New York in 1912 to study at the Art Students League.
At age 17, she began winning prizes and awards for her painting. In her twenties, her paintings were shown at the National Academy of Design and with the Society of Independent Artists. In 1927, Duncan Phillips bought two of her paintings for his collection. There were many solo exhibitions of her work including one at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In the 1950s, as Abstract Expressionism gained in popularity, her brushstrokes became looser and more abstract, but she never let go of figurative painting. In a later interview, she explained that while abstract painting contained form and color, it lacked humanity.
Many of Bernstein’s paintings feature groups of people, sometimes crowds. She directs the viewer’s eye by painting certain faces in great detail or by clothing a key figure in white, as in “Polish Church: Easter Morning” (1916). She painted important events of the day—immigrants crowding boats, women by themselves on the elevated railway, concerts of opera and jazz, street scenes during wartime, sports events, landscapes and beach scenes. She also portrayed famous people of the day, from Albert Einstein to Louie Armstrong. Perhaps more than any other artist, she captured the day-to-day life of a whole century—painting until she was 110, her brushstroke still strong and sure. She died just before her 112th birthday.
Though often not on public display, her paintings are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Phillips Collection, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress.
This large exhibition is interesting from so many points of view—artistic, feminist, humanist, and historical—all of which reveal an artist who lived and recorded life in the moment.
Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art is on view through October 26, 2014, Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, 215-247-0476 http://woodmereartmuseum.org