Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art at Woodmere Art Museum

Documenting the 20th century

Theresa Bernstein (1890-2002) crossed the century line twice and painted until she was 110 years old. Her canvases document her time.

All the old familiar places: Theresa Bernstein, "The Readers," 1914, oil on canvas.

She arrived in Philadelphia from Poland, in her parents’ arms. She would later paint waves of immigrants who continued to flow into the United States to pursue new lives. She was Jewish, and though raised in a secular home, her faith deepened with marriage and the founding of Israel, which she would visit repeatedly. This heritage is represented in her work as well. Music was a central influence, and Bernstein’s brush communicated the rapture of the Met’s balcony and the syncopated energy of jazz clubs. Born 30 years before women could vote, she defied stereotype and placed women front and center in her canvases. Bernstein also painted a more intimate world, capturing in still lifes of remembrance the personal experience of a loving marriage and a daughter lost in infancy to pneumonia.

The Woodmere Art Museum is hosting Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art through October. The first retrospective of Bernstein’s work, it is a traveling exhibition organized by Gail Levin, distinguished professor of art history, American studies, and women’s studies at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

An urban milieu

Bernstein spent her life in cities, and it shows in her art, which is often set in busy streets and crowded neighborhoods. She grew up in Philadelphia, where her father was a textile manufacturer, and in 1911 graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now Moore College of Art & Design. The following year, the family and business relocated to New York City.

The exhibited works were completed in the first half of the 20th century, when Bernstein painted immigrants and factory workers, concertgoers and soldiers on parade. She drew places she frequented, such as the New York Public Library (The Readers, 1914), Carnegie Hall (Carnegie Hall with Paderewski, 1914), and the Metropolitan Opera (Verdi’s Requiem, 1930), where Bernstein’s husband, painter and printmaker William Meyerowitz, sang in the chorus.

A man’s world

The couple spent summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts beginning in 1916. It was a thriving artist colony that provided women, in particular, a more relaxed environment in which to create and associate free of the proscriptions of mainstream society, in which they were regarded as odd and even dangerous.

Bernstein was a founding member of The Philadelphia Ten, a group of women artists, and belonged to several women’s rights organizations. While women’s issues are sometimes explicit, as in Suffrage Meeting (1914), even when they are not, Bernstein often placed women prominently, relegating men to the shadowy perimeter and rendering them in less detail. This is the case with Polish Church, Easter Morning (1916).

Workers and war

From pews jammed with devout congregants to the crowded deck of the Cunard Aquitania (The Immigrants, 1923), Bernstein painted the working-class people she encountered on streets and in factories. Sketching quickly, she would fill in the detail of faces later, often with the visages of friends and family. She preferred not to have strangers “pose,” believing it robbed her work of spontaneity.

Bernstein was also a prolific writer, keeping a journal from a young age, contributing articles and essays to publications, and publishing several books, including, when she was 96, The Artist Speaks, a biography of her husband, and at age 101, her own autobiography, The Journal.

This summer, as the world marks 100 years since the beginning of World War I, it is interesting to see paintings made as the conflict happened. For Bernstein, the “war to end all wars” was a current event, and she rendered life on the home front in Reading the War News (1915), Allies of World War I (1917), Armistice Day Parade: The Altar of Liberty (1918), and Searchlights on the Hudson (1915) , a beautiful painting that could almost be mistaken for an Independence Day celebration, with white beams crisscrossing the night sky like fireworks, instead of probing for enemy planes over Manhattan.

Though she never stopped painting, interest in Bernstein’s realistic approach waned later in the 20th century. She maintained that she never changed, the times did. However, her style varied with her subject, ranging from strict representation to a looser, more emotional portrayal, particularly when she painted jazz artists, as in Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong (1927), Cab Calloway — Minnie the Moocher (1935), and Charlie Parker (1953). It is as though the music — improvisation laid over melody — infiltrated Bernstein’s composition. In these works, she painted the sound as much as the scene.

Remembering the ladies

While relatively unknown to casual museumgoers, Bernstein’s work is held in public collections across the country, including the Library of Congress and Smithsonian National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., as well as the Museum of the City of New York.

This exhibit, which debuted last fall at the City University of New York, follows the Woodmere’s presentation of the work of Jessie Drew-Bear, another female artist with Philadelphia ties who had receded from public awareness. How fitting that the Chestnut Hill museum is reintroducing them at a time in which an accomplished woman is not described as “painting like a man,” as Bernstein was, when she is only painting like an artist.


Above right: Verdi's Requiem, 1930, oil on canvas.

Above left: The Immigrants, 1923, oil on canvas.

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