John Fulton Folinsbee (1892-1972), one of the more prominent New Hope landscape painters during the first half of the last century, differed from his contemporaries in the way he interpreted his surroundings.

Even today, the paintings he made after about 1920 stand out from typically picturesque New Hope scenes because of their sometimes unorthodox subject matter and bold moodiness.

Folinsbee reacted positively to the influence of modernism. As the paintings indicate, he never became a full-fledged modernist, but he put to good use the modernist belief that effective picture-making needed to go beyond mere transcription of a motif.

His career provides an illuminating case study of how American art in general shifted under the influence of progressive thinking, both from Europe and from native realists such as Robert Henri and John Sloan.

We can see this transformation unfold in a Folinsbee exhibition at the Woodmere Art Museum. Organized by guest curator Kirsten Jensen, director of the artist's catalogue raisonné, it consists of 41 paintings that bracket 1912 to 1949.

This isn't a large exhibition, but it covers a critical period, particularly the 1920s and '30s, when Folinsbee revamped both his painting technique and his attitude toward his subject matter. Consequently, his work became visually more forceful and more emotionally resonant.

One has only to compare the exhibition's first few paintings, made just before and during World War I, with the last picture in the hanging, Night, from 1949.

In the first instance, Folinsbee was painting as an impressionist - two sunny river scenes, Tulip Poplars, Autumn and Frozen River, establish his starting point.

In Night, he not only created a masterly juxtaposition of dramatic light and menacing shadow, but he also infused this view of a village square with an unsettling, expressionist portentousness.

The painting fully realizes Folinsbee's credo that "Light is only a mass against the darkness" - that is, a fluid boundary between equally expressive phenomena.

Folinsbee is an interesting artist for other reasons. Born in Buffalo, he was an art prodigy who began studying art at age 9 through a children's program run by the Art Students League in that city.

Subsequently, he studied at the Art Students League summer school in Woodstock, N.Y., where he shared a studio with New Hope painter Harry Leith-Ross. Folinsbee moved to New Hope in 1916 and lived there until he died.

He quickly developed a national reputation, and his art was acquired by major museums such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

He prospered professionally despite having contracted polio at age 14. Being confined to a wheelchair might appear to be a serious impediment for a landscapist, yet the paintings at Woodmere don't suggest he had to make any compromises.

Folinsbee saw the landmark Armory exhibition in 1913, but if it changed his thinking, the transformation in his art didn't begin to take place until the early 1920s, in pictures such as The Funeral, The Coal Yard, and Mending the Canal Bank. The palette of these is noticeably darker than his earlier, sunnier impressionist efforts.

By 1928, when he finished River Lane, impressionism has pretty much disappeared, replaced by broader, Cezannesque brushwork. Cezanne's influence is even more pronounced in Deserted Mine No. 1 of 1930. By then, in his technique and interest in industrial subjects, Folinsbee had completely shifted to a viewpoint more consistent with modernist practice.

Industrial subjects such as bridges, quarries, and railroads provided raw material for compositions that emphasized pictorial structure, another legacy from Cezanne. Yet, in some pictures Folinsbee went beyond structure as a formal device; through stark contrasts between light and dark, he also mixed in some expressionist intensity.

One can feel this in pictures such as Shad Net (Shad Fishermen) of 1938, with its lowering steel-blue sky and crisp whites, and Haul Before the Storm of 1940, which also depicts fishermen on the Delaware River.

Some observers have identified a touch of Edward Hopper in Folinsbee's work, especially in the 1929 railroad scene Trenton Platform.

The difference, though, is that Hopper's pictures, even those without figures, usually suggest a psychological or emotional dimension, whereas Folinsbee's are more concerned with compositional architecture, especially light and shadow.

Folinsbee doesn't need an association with Hopper to merit serious attention. He's one of the more stimulating New Hope painters, in the way he provided an alternative way to interpret a country landscape that, through overexposure, had become quaintly picturesque.

Photo treasure revealed. Improbably, the Reading Public Museum owns a complete set - 781 mounted prints - of Eadweard Muybridge's classic photographic study Animal Locomotion.

Apparently the museum owned its copy of this historic portfolio, offered to subscribers in 1887, for a good part of the 20th century. Yet the landmark studies of humans and animal moving in front of a camera weren't formally accessioned until 1997, when they were "found" in the museum archive.

Oddly, the museum isn't sure how this treasure came into its possession. Officials can only speculate that the museum's founder, Levi Mengel, was a subscriber, or that the portfolio was given when the museum opened in 1904.

In any case, recent acquisition of nine pioneering stroboscopic photographs by Harold Edgerton prompted the museum to combine these with 18 Muybridge prints into an exhibition called "Photographic Motion."

This is familiar but still fascinating material. The Edgertons include bullets passing through lightbulbs, apples, and playing cards. The Muybridge freeze-frames depict men vaulting, throwing a ball, and shoeing a horse; women are shown sweeping a floor, carrying water, and jumping over a stool. Some people are clothed, some nude or partially so.

The museum is also featuring a selection of Tiffany lamps from a New York collection that was lent to the Allentown Art Museum three years ago (Reading's is a different version of that show).

This attractive, thematic installation, augmented by a video, isn't so much a voyage of discovery as an attractive and informative introduction to how the Tiffany Studio produced these innovative combinations of utility and beauty.

Art: Becoming Modern

"John Folinsbee and American Modernism" continues at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, through March 6. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Christmas and New Years. Admission to special exhibitions is $10 general and $7 for visitors 55 and older. Free to college students with I.D. and school students through grade 12. Information: 215-247-0476 or www.woodmereartmuseum.org.

"Photographing Motion" continues at the Reading Public Museum, 500 Museum Rd., through Jan. 16. "Tiffany Lamps" continues through Jan. 23. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 Sundays. Closed Christmas and New Years. Admission is $8 general and $6 for visitors 60 and older, children, and students with I.D. Information: 610-371-5850 or www.readingpublicmuseum.org.

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Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/

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