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Art: Rediscovering an appealing primitive painter at the Woodmere

As with many so-called "self-taught" artists, the paintings of Jessie Drew-Bear (1879-1962) come wrapped in a compelling life story that reveals her to have been an exceptional woman who, if she were better known, would be a feminist saint.

Jessie Drew-Bear: "Opera Star Rosina Galli," oil on canvas (1949-53)
Jessie Drew-Bear: "Opera Star Rosina Galli," oil on canvas (1949-53)Read more

As with many so-called "self-taught" artists, the paintings of Jessie Drew-Bear (1879-1962) come wrapped in a compelling life story that reveals her to have been an exceptional woman who, if she were better known, would be a feminist saint.

As a painter, Drew-Bear was a fabulist with a charming, untutored style and a view of the world reminiscent of her more famous near-contemporary, Florine Stettheimer.

Drew-Bear's paintings, sometimes wildly imaginative and as dazzlingly colorful as cloisonné enamel plaques, are endearing in the way that much folk art is - because they're innocent, heartfelt, and direct.

Yet Drew-Bear, who described herself as a "sophisticated primitive," isn't a typical "folk artist," not only because she had some instruction - from Philadelphia modernist Arthur B. Carles (and also, for a month, from Fernand Léger) - but because she was a woman of the world, successful in business and widely traveled.

Her life story is appealing because, for a woman of her era, it's improbable. She was born Jessie Henderson in England in 1879, the 13th of 14 children. By 1897 she had married engineer Tom Emile Drew-Bear, and by 1904 had two sons and a daughter.

The following year, whether divorced, widowed, or neither - it's not clear - she left England for Philadelphia (why here is not clear either), leaving behind her sons. Her infant daughter may have come with her; in any case, all three eventually lived with her here.

Drew-Bear opened a flower shop at 18th and Chestnut Streets, which prospered, and which she continued to run through the 1950s, long after she began to paint. That started in 1938, when her daughter gave her a box of colors for Christmas. At 59 she launched her new career, a serious one she pursued until her death 24 years later.

She exhibited in a number of solo gallery shows here and elsewhere, and in several museums, particularly the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.

Recognized and appreciated during her life, Drew-Bear slipped below the horizon after she died, as many artists do.

Today she qualifies as a discovery. The Woodmere Art Museum has put together an exhibition of 67 paintings that delightfully confirm that the term "sophisticated primitive" fits her perfectly.

On one hand, she, like many naïve painters, couldn't draw. Buildings in her paintings tilt, usually to the left. One occasionally notices eccentric shifts of scale; Interior, Antibes includes several. And, again like many naifs, she often covers every square centimeter of canvas with painterly intervention. Economy of means never entered her mind.

On the other, her outdoor scenes, especially those of Venice, where she spent summers, and her interiors are precisely observed. Her color sense, perhaps her strong suit, is acutely developed. She expressed her restless imagination in the themes of Adam and Eve and Alice in Wonderland, in a saucy depiction of mermaids, and in a vibrant undersea panorama. She learned to scuba-dive in her late 70s so she could portray marine plants and creatures more accurately.

(Is this beginning to sound like a movie?)

Drew-Bear's paintings present a perfect synthesis of intuitive inventiveness and lovable whimsy. Kudos to Woodmere for restoring her lively spirit and painterly verve to the public domain.

The queen of colorists. Quita Brodhead, a modernist painter who died at 101 in 2002, was more profoundly shaped than Drew-Bear by the tutelage of Arthur B. Carles, who was one of her teachers at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the early 1920s.

A retrospective exhibition of 56 paintings at Woodmere indicates how Carles' emphasis on expressive color became a touchstone of her work for decades.

The exhibition begins with the realist style Brodhead would have learned at the Pennsylvania Academy.

Her evolution from realism to pure abstraction is steady and logical. Through the 1930s, she began to modulate still-recognizable forms with diaphanous veils of bright secondary colors. In pictures such as A Vase of Tulips, painted about 1934, she is walking in her mentor's footprints.

By the early 1940s, when she painted Still Life With Mandolin, concrete objects have nearly dissolved into a profusion of colorful shapes and bold swirls of pigment. Inevitably, what we might call a mature style of pure abstraction emerged.

The energetic knot of color called From a Peach Orchard of 1954 represents one variant, to be followed a year later by the more angular, Cubist-inflected compositions Abstract and Abstract #1.

These pictures might not seem remarkable now, but if we consider when they were made we realize that, at least as far as the American art world was concerned, Brodhead was positioned solidly in the middle of the modernist pack.

Conceptually, the paintings are conventional, if at times a bit cluttered; some also suggest that they should have been carried to a more satisfactory conclusion. What distinguishes them is Brodhead's persistent commitment to soft, lyrical colors, combined in ways that suggest melodic lushness.

If this sounds like a feminine vocabulary, so be it. Give Brodhead credit for not submitting to the macho aggressiveness of her male counterparts.

Brodhead enjoyed a remarkable career that extended well into her 90s. By then she had pared her vocabulary down to a Zen-like minimalism - a few carefully positioned gestures on a color field, a common strategy of elderly painters.

The retrospective ends on such an elegaic note, a quiet, contemplative mandala-like image - neither a bang nor a whimper but more like a devotion.


Jessie Drew-Bear and Quita Brodhead

"Jessie Drew-Bear: Stories and Dreams" continues through July 13 and "Quita Brodhead: Bold Strokes" continues through June 1 at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill.

Admission: $10, $7 for 55 and older, free for students and children.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 10 to 8:45 Fridays; 10 to 6 Saturdays.

Information: 215-247-0476 or