“From Impressionism to Modernism,” the current exhibition at the Michener Art Museum, isn’t so much about movements and isms as it is about a smallish group of neighbors — artists — who lived and worked between 1899 and 1955 in New Hope and other villages along the Delaware.
These Pennsylvania impressionists, all from someplace else, usually by way of New York, set up their studios in old mills and other buildings left over from a bygone time of canal trade and water-powered manufacturing.
They had moved to a pretty place where they could paint the river, the creeks, the woods, pastures, mills, and villages, often in a style influenced by the French impressionist painters whose name they took.
In 1915, several of the painters won medals at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco, and their celebration of the rural was hailed by the influential painter and critic Guy Pène du Bois as “our first truly national expression.”
Unlike their French counterparts, who celebrated spring and summer, the Pennsylvania impressionists excelled in their depiction of winter.
A work like The Upper Delaware (c. 1918) by Edward W. Redfield, one of the founders of the New Hope colony, gives off a bright chill. The river is clotted with ice. A few brown leaves cling to withered shrubs. The white snow is subtly multicolored, filled with blues, violets, and purples.
It’s everything you would want in a Bucks County picture, and Redfield painted them for decades.
But there were artists, like Charles Rosen, who felt the need to change. He started out as an impressionist, and his painting Opalescent Morning (1909) fuses impressionist brushstrokes, Japanese-inflected composition, and American subject matter in a fresh and lively way.
But after World War I, he became modernish, if not modernist, experimenting with new styles coming out of Europe. In 1918, he painted Under the Bridge, a cubist-influenced townscape, and in 1920 produced Waterfall, which shows he had been looking at German expressionists.
Other artists, such as Lloyd Ney, confronted the regional style frontally, prompting the formation of rival artists’ organizations and exhibitions that, especially during the 1930s, pitted the traditionalist pioneers against those who wanted to respond to their own times.
In 1930, Ney submitted a painting (now lost) to a local show that was rejected because it featured a bright red bridge, which caused an uproar with many opinions both pro and con. Ney went on to produce far more abstract works, influenced by the completely non-representational art of Wassily Kandinsky.
This small-town backwater skirmish made no great difference in the development of modern art. But it did show that even in a place like New Hope, whose art and lifestyle were rooted in escaping the cities where the modern world was taking shape, a few were experimenting with new ways of seeing the world.
The exhibition, subtitled “The Lenfest Collection of American Art,” is most of all a tribute to the late H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, philanthropists who have supported, nurtured, and transformed many of the region’s institutions, including The Inquirer.
The Michener is an appropriate place for such a tribute since the Lenfests gave the museum two substantial gifts of paintings and a few sculptures, numbering about 100 works. This show is the first time every object from the collection has been on display.
If you have been to the Michener previously, you have probably seen some of what’s on exhibit here. That’s because the Lenfest works form the backbone of the museum’s collection of Bucks County and Pennsylvania art, which, along with the works of George Nakashima and other regional furniture-makers, gives the museum its reason for being.
Only one of the works in this show, a watercolor by Richard Peter Hoffman, has never been displayed; its frame needed repair.
Seen in a new light
For this show, Laura Turner Igoe, the Michener’s recently hired curator of American art, has taken many of the works out of the dense, salon-style display of past years and hung them more or less chronologically, with plenty of room between works.
As with the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent series of shows reexamining parts of the permanent collection, the show offers both an introduction to the collection and a subtle reinterpretation.
A wall text refers to the Lenfests as “visionary collectors,” and you might expect such an exhibition to reflect personal tastes and views. That’s not really the case here. Their vision is an institutional one. The collection seems to have begun with some works that they loved, but it was developed with the needs of the museum in mind.
It contains, as was intended, an excellent selection of works that tell a half-century story of the New Hope art colony.
You will probably come away most impressed by the conservatives like Redfield, Daniel Garber, and George Sotter, artists with formidable technique who perfected a limited range of ideas and subjects over many years.
A few of the modernist pieces are striking. Ney’s mid-1950s series of paintings using the same graphic elements but a different palette provides a demonstration of how color makes meaning. The Jazz Trio (1942) by Joseph Meierhans is a variation on a famous painting by Pablo Picasso, but Meierhans adds energy, optimism, color, and jazz to make an American painting.
Pennsylvania impressionists get a lot of attention — arguably too much — from local museums. This show is useful because it both provides a context for the impressionists and includes some less-seen works that don’t fit into any stylistic pigeonhole.
The Pigs and the Crows (1938) by the Swedish-born, Chicago-trained artist B.J.O. Nordfeldt follows the local tradition by depicting rural life. But the contrast between the lush, leafy trees and the dead, craggy one where the crows abide — combined with the subtle distortion of the picture space — signals that this is no safe rural refuge.
It was 1938, a second world war was on the horizon, and there was no escaping the horror, even in Bucks County.
From Impressionism to Modernism: the Lenfest Collection of American Art
Through March 1 at the Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown.
Hours: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.
Admission: Adults, $15; seniors, $13; students, $8; youth ages 6-18, $5 (under 6 free).
Information: 215-340-9800, MichenerArtMuseum.org.