The term "calendar art" has been pejorative as long as I can remember, despite the fact that, as we'll see in a moment, some of it has been created by top-rank artists. Calendar art is commercial, mass-produced, and directed at a mass audience; so, critical thinking goes, how good can it be?
The question is posed, and answered positively, by two closely related exhibitions at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford.
One looks at a suite of 12 paintings created by N.C. Wyeth as a commission for John Morrell & Co., an Iowa meat-packer. The other presents a selection of calendar paintings by Howard Pyle, Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, and Wyeth.
All were highly regarded illustrators whose reputations derive mostly from the images they created for books, magazines, posters, and other forms of printed communication. The high-art establishment regarded them as second-class citizens, when it noticed them at all.
N.C. Wyeth, father of Andrew, was a history buff who was fastidious about period details, especially clothing. The paintings he made for the 1940 Morrell & Co. calendar represent the essence of his artistic concerns.
The series is titled "N.C. Wyeth's America in the Making." Each painting features an important personality or event in the country's history, beginning with the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado (January) and ending with Abraham Lincoln (December).
In between we encounter the signers of the Mayflower Compact, the French explorer Jacques Marquette, Ben Franklin flying his famous kite, Thomas Jefferson composing the Declaration of Independence, George Washington at the battle of Yorktown, and Lewis and Clark, among others.
It's not known whether the artist or the patron chose the subjects; Coronado seems a curious choice, as does Sam Houston. The October image, Covered Wagons, stands out because it's a genre landscape that lacks a central figure. Washington is the strongest composition, Lincoln one of the weakest because it's a poor likeness.
The most noticeable aspect of these paintings, all about 27 by 25 inches, is that they look better in reproduction than they do as original oils. Wyeth evidently knew that the process of transposing the paintings to printed images would sharpen them.
In any case, several of these pictures project as splendid individual history paintings, particularly Washington overlooking the climactic battle of the Revolutionary War and Marquette posing heroically in a canoe on a placid waterway.
Wyeth also figures prominently in the companion show "A Date With Art," which includes several works by each artist. These include warm-and-fuzzy paintings that Rockwell made for the Boy Scouts of America, and some small, serene landscapes by Parrish.
Seen in a museum setting generations after they were created, these images look excessively anodyne and sentimental. One must remember, however, that as calendars they might have been the only art on display in many households of their era. Consequently, they deserve some respect.
A talent remembered. Martha Mayer Erlebacher was one of three highly respected Philadelphia painters who died in the last two years (the others being Sidney Goodman and Murray Dessner). Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill has put up a small memorial show that commemorates the discipline and intellectual rigor that Erlebacher, who died June 22, 2013, put into her work.
In her use of classical and Renaissance models she was resolutely traditional, yet as the show indicates, her interpretations of familiar themes speak to contemporary attitudes.
This is a small show, a dozen oils and half as many drawings, but it eloquently describes Erlebacher's priorities. She used the human figure to express emotional states and existential truths. Her intensely humanist examination of mankind reconciles history and modern life in a way that has become rare in painting today.
A prime example from the exhibition is the large painting of three nude and nearly nude females in a barren, desolate setting. It's titled In a Garden, but what sort of strange garden can this be?
Erlebacher conceived this tableau as Gethsemane, the place were Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion. The figures, especially the agonized central one, symbolize despair. They are timeless actors, yet recognizable as contemporary.
Garden is an unsettling picture, as is The Death of Orpheus, a classical theme about violence as a frequent consequence of jealousy. More than Garden, it's a dark, brooding scene, the light-washed figure of Orpheus bearing more than a passing resemblance to Jesus.
Erlebacher expressed similar sentiments in still lifes, particularly the memento mori of bullet-pierced skulls called War Game. Even the innocuous Eggplants and Grapes, set against a fiery background, feels sacrificial.
For Erlebacher, painting was a serious pursuit because she believed it still had profound things to say. Her allegories aren't always ominous; The Path, two male figures, one white, one black, passing each other on life's journey, quietly celebrates human dignity and mutual respect. Cheers to her for having kept such cherished values alive.
Art: Brandywine to Chestnut Hill
"N.C. Wyeth's Making of America" and "A Date With Art" continue at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, Route 1, Chadds Ford, through May 18. 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission: $12 general; $8 for 65 and older; $6 for students with ID and children 6 to 12. Free Sundays until noon. 610-388-2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org.
The Martha Erlebacher exhibition continues at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, through March 2. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays; 10 to 8:45 Fridays; 10 to 6 Saturdays. Admission: $10 general; $7 for 55 and older. Students with ID and children free. 215-247-0476 or www.woodmereartmuseum.org.