Painter Bill Scott’s friend Edith Neff was only 52 when she died of cancer in 1995.
She was born in Philadelphia, raised in the city (near 26th and Parrish Streets), studied at the Philadelphia College of Art, taught at PCA and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and, most of all, painted right in the city.
No one from Philadelphia looking at her artwork would mistake the place.
“She really creates what I mean when I talk about the place — she’s here more than there," said Scott on a recent visit to the Woodmere Art Museum, where a large Neff retrospective is on exhibition through Jan. 19, the first big survey of her work since her death. “She really paints Philadelphia.”
Walking through the exhibition, “Our Town: A Retrospective of Edith Neff,” with Scott, 63, is very akin to ambling through a village of stoops and playgrounds and streets and parks populated by acquaintances and friends and family and lots of artists.
It’s a journey not simply into the artistic world of Neff and her hometown, but into a world of remembered landscape and people. Neff’s lived experience provides the seeds; her art is the harvest.
There are the black cowboys of North Philadelphia, on horseback in the street. There is the low skyline of the city — before skyscrapers broke the agreed-upon height limit. There are vaguely sinister mummers in full feather; there are the swimming pools in Hunting Park and Starr Garden playground, Sixth and Lombard Streets — each full of black kids and white kids.
Neff’s mom and two sisters look out from a familiar bridge over the old Reading Railroad tracks near the art museum. Art historian Patricia Stewart and painters Harry Soviak and Jan Baltzell are all gathered on canvas at Woodmere.
“She paints the places she knew,” said Scott, who met Neff in the early 1970s, around the time he began as a student at PAFA and she was teaching at PCA, a colleague of Scott’s much-admired friend, Jane Piper. Neff’s painting work springs from the long tradition of figurative Philadelphia realism, while Piper (and Scott) focus more on color and light.
“I remember, I was right out of high school," said Scott. "I was kind of impressed — I was so naive — that someone who painted like Jane and someone who painted like Edith would be close friends. ” said Scott.
As Scott spoke about those student days, his gaze fell on Neff’s 1971-72 Girls on the Stoop, a large oil (most of her paintings are large).
The painting depicts the front steps of a rowhouse, near Ninth and Pine Streets, with two women and a little girl sitting, and two girls, arms entwined, leaning on a railing. It was painted from a black-and-white photograph taken by Neff. All of her paintings, except for the self-portraits, are from photographs, first from family snapshots, then, from the late 1960s on, from photos taken by Neff herself.
Girls on the Stoop “was what you see, walking around the city,” said Scott. “Albert, her husband, told me that a neighbor had called her and said, ‘Come around the corner. I just saw a couple of people on the sidewalk. You should take a picture of them and paint them.' Albert was, I think, really thrilled that a neighbor had seen the world through her eyes. That was great for him to know. It might not have meant the same thing to her. But that painting was painted from one photograph. Many of the other ones are from a few photographs."
Scott first saw the painting "when it was included in the 1973 ‘Earth Art’ exhibition in the museum of the old Philadelphia Civic Center,” he said.
“I was still in high school and — except for Fairfield Porter, Alice Neel, and Louisa Matthiasdottir — I knew very little about living painters. At that time I wanted to grow up to be a figure-portrait painter, and seeing Edith’s painting was very inspirational for me, and it was also important to me when realizing this was painted by someone who was living in Philadelphia.”
That same year, 1973, Neff had a big financial break — she won a public-art commission and embarked on a major mural project for the interior of 3624 Market St., then the headquarters of the University City Science Center.
The result, a 30-foot triptych painting, is quintessential Neff. It was executed, Scott said, in a studio at Ninth and Chestnut Streets, rented from photographer George Krause — it was too big to even attempt in her studio at home.
The painting shows an ordinary street corner in Powelton Village full of people of different races and ages, all painted from Neff’s photographs. Her mother is standing on a stoop to the left, her husband is crossing the street on the right.
The mural encapsulates the city of daily life, and even suggests a small Neff vision of possibilities latent in Philadelphia — she renders a weed-choked lot in the photographs as a small Philadelphia park.
“It was a big painting and it made a lot of money,” said Scott. “Her mother appears in a lot of pictures. She’s often in the doorway.”
The completion of the mural coincided with a change in Neff’s technique, Scott said, possibly because she began using pastels in the mid-1970s.
“Her style went from more clear, hard edge in a way, like a more opaque color — I think of it sort of like Manet — to going with a much more atmospheric stroke where the edges aren’t so clear," he said. “They are softer, I think influenced by the stroke of putting the pastel on the paper.”
Looking at The Magi (1978), three figures on a rooftop with the low, jagged Center City skyline behind them, makes the change clear.
“When she was alive, I wasn’t in love with her paintings,” said Scott. “They seemed very, very photographic to me. I couldn’t get away from the photographic source. They don’t feel that way to me anymore. And I think it might be because ... I know the photographs so well now.”
The photographs, rather than being confining, actually allow the paintings to become paintings.
“They’re really paintings,” said Scott, pointing to The Magi. “There’s a passage in this painting right here on the right-hand side of the buildings, in the top right-hand corner of this picture of the horizon line with the building rooftops. That’s just beautiful. There’s nothing photographic about it."
Painters see the granular specifics of craft in a painting, beauties that may escape a quick glance or even a considered look at subjects.
But looking around at Woodmere, looking up at the Neff self-portraits on the balcony, looking over at a vaguely unsettling Evening Light (1986-1987) with its tough kid blowing bubbles in Fairmount Park, looking over at aggressively nude Warren Muller on a neighbor’s balcony or at Sic Gloria Transit Mundi, Neff’s last painting finished shortly before her death, which contains her final portrait of friend Jan Baltzell, Scott is among paintings and people.
“You know that Paul Valery quotation?” Scott wondered. “A portrait of someone is a person as long as they are alive and anyone who knew them is alive, but after they’re dead, it’s only a painting. These are becoming paintings. They’re paintings. They’re not the people.”
“It’s sad,” he continued. “It’s sad to see the show. When I walked in here, the first time ... I cried. And I wasn’t expecting to. But I think it was that way for a lot of people who knew her. When somebody’s taken out of the picture too soon, it’s just wrong. And you think how would the art world in Philadelphia be better or different if she were still here?”
Our Town: A Retrospective of Edith Neff
Through Jan. 19 at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun. with extended hours Fridays until 8 and Saturdays until 6.
Admission: Adults, $10; seniors, $7; children and students free. Free to all on Sundays.