Delaware Art Museum presents Elizabeth Osborne and Truth & Vision

Past (the '60s) and present meet in Wilmington

Nestled in a plush Wilmington neighborhood, the Delaware Art Museum (DAM) is always worth a visit for its deep and widely divergent collections of the Pre-Raphaelites and American art and illustration. But two recently opened exhibitions, both curated by Margaret Winslow, are a reason to visit anew, and the Museum’s size makes it easy to take in both in one trip.

Elizabeth Osborne, 'Black Doorway,' 1966. (Photo courtesy of the artist and the Locks Gallery, Philadelphia)

If you plan your visit for the end of the day or on a Thursday when the museum is open late, you can also see the front windows and rear-facing clerestory illuminated in an ever-changing light work by James Turrell (who created Skyspace in Chestnut Hill).

Elizabeth Osborne: The Sixties

Elizabeth Osborne: The Sixties is an intimate look into the early career of this Philadelphia doyenne of contemporary painting. Over the half-century of her work, Osborne has become best known for her glowing landscapes and seascapes. She also has a wide, appreciative following for the interiors and figurative paintings that aligned her with modernists such as Richard Diebenkorn and Color Field painters like Helen Frankenthaler.

This affecting exhibition looks back to the 1960s with a small group of haunting dark paintings that have been largely unstudied. Curator Winslow gathered 12 works showcasing a pivotal moment in the artist’s career and exploring her relationship with “proto-Pop Art” contemporaries.

Osborne received a certificate in 1958 from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and a BFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1959. She then became a teacher at PAFA, only the third woman to do so. (The first was iconic American illustrator and painter Violet Oakley, whose work can be seen elsewhere at DAM.) In the mid-‘60s, Osborne became the proverbial “American in Paris,” spending a Fulbright year in 1963-64.

While she was painting in Paris, the contemporary American art scene was bursting out. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were in ascendance, and Osborne found herself scouring magazines and looking for inspiration in what was happening at home.

In a small museum gallery that begs you to sit and absorb, Elizabeth Osborne: The Sixties shows the influence of Osborne’s U.S. contemporaries as she worked in her Parisian atelier. Some paintings incorporate found objects, indicative of the time, and all reflect the urbanity of Paris. In three of the strongest paintings, all entitled Black Doorway, and grouped together, the artist peers out, slightly guarded, curious yet determined — surely a metaphor for her life’s work.

Well known nationally, and a regional star, Osborne had a relationship with DAM early in her career. She was included in the museum’s annual shows in 1959, ‘60, and ‘61, and the Wilmington institution was the first museum to purchase one of her works (now on view upstairs).

Osborne says, “To me, it’s important that I have something to leave behind that’s meaningful…that says something about me and how I felt about the world.” These dozen paintings give a clear look at and from the artist as she began her career.

Winslow put the exhibition together with the help of the artist and the Locks Gallery, Osborne’s longtime representation. Along with publications from other major Osborne showings, the museum shop has a lovely small catalogue of this exhibition that features an illuminating interview with Osborne and charming period photographs from her Parisian sojourn.

Truth & vision: 21st-century realism

Bo Bartlett, 'Kingdom of Ends,' 2009. (Image courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum)
Bo Bartlett, 'Kingdom of Ends,' 2009. (Image courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum)

This major exhibition is a fascinating survey of 21st-century U.S. realist painting.

Here, the curator sought to explore two contemporary trends: depiction of the natural world and fantastic imaginings. Many of the works include elements of both.

“Realism” seems straightforward: it represents what we see. But it is a loaded term; what do we actually see? And “representation” has a dual meaning, both exactly what is visible and what is represented through interpretation. These works are layered with lyricism, impressionistic elements, and abstraction, reflecting the complexity of both the art world and the artist’s world.

In a spacious gallery, the beautifully mounted Truth & Vision features 20 U.S. and Canadian artists with national and international reputations, each of whom has at least two pieces on view. The exhibition was inspired when, in 2014, Winslow discovered trompe l’oeil painter Robert Jackson and his book Behind the Easel: The Unique Voices of 20 Contemporary Representational Painters. The book, which Jackson hoped to place in the museum store, features interviews with artists who inspired and illuminated Jackson. Winslow was hooked by its scope and its artist interview, 10-question format.

All work in the exhibition was created in the last decade, and while the scope is national, there are also artists with regional connections: John Moore (who taught at the University of Pennsylvania) is represented by a genre-crossing work, Post. Bo Bartlett (who was mentored by Andrew Wyeth) has the one of the show’s signature pieces, Kingdom of Ends. Indeed, almost all the artists acknowledge a debt to Brandywine artists like Howard Pyle and the Wyeth family. 

There are now national conferences and gatherings around the subject of representational art, and there’s a groundswell of renewed interest in contemporary realist painting. Winslow believes “PAFA makes Philadelphia a pivotal location for solid representational work.”

Exhibiting artist Woody Gwyn says, “Reality is an inexhaustible source.” Truth & Vision takes that to heart, and like many creative collections of artists’ work, it raises more questions than it’s prepared to, or even wants to, answer.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.