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Painter of The Century: Theresa Bernstein

  • Painter of The Century: Theresa Bernstein
  • Franklin & Marshall College's Phillips Museum of Art is presenting "Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art," from Feb. 7 to April 12 in the Leonard and Mildred Rothman Gallery. Perhaps the oldest living American artist at the time of her death in 2002, Bernstein, here in her studio, circa 1917, lived in New York and Massachusetts. (Courtesy of Theresa Bernstein and William Meyerowitz Foundation)

In 1890, the year American painter Theresa Bernstein was born, Vincent van Gogh painted like a demon two months before his death in Paris, Queen Victoria entered the sixth decade of her rule of the British Empire, and Idaho and Wyoming become the country's 43rd and 44th states.

Bernstein's long, fruitful life as an artist in Philadelphia, New York and Gloucester, Mass., ended in 2002, shortly before her 112th birthday. She had lived in three centuries, and her work spanned the length of the 20th century.

A retrospective exhibition of many of those works, "Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art," runs from Feb. 7 to April 12 in the Leonard and Mildred Rothman Gallery of The Phillips Museum of Art, located in the Steinman College Center off College Avenue at Franklin & Marshall College.

Gail Levin, distinguished professor of Art History, American Studies, and Women Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Baruch College, organized the exhibition. Levin said she discovered Bernstein -- little known outside the art world -- while researching American realist Edward Hopper, most famous for "Nighthawks," his painting of people in a late-night city diner.

"She was once more popular than Hopper, with whom she sometimes showed during the 1910s and 1920s," Levin said. "The exhibition explores how fame is fleeting, but shows that the quality of her work has outlived fad and fashion. Bernstein's style began as a kind of realism, often linked by critics to the Ashcan School, but ended up more expressionist." The Ashcan School was an impromptu American art movement, and its artists were best known for producing works that portrayed daily life in New York City.

  • Theresa Bernstein 1923 the immigrants
  • The Immigrants, 1923, oil on canvas, Thomas and Karen Buckley Collection.

Bernstein may be the only artist to have made and exhibited work in every decade of the 20th century, Levin said. Bernstein's paintings are noteworthy, even among her male contemporaries, such as John Sloan, Stuart Davis and Hopper.

Levin said Bernstein treated the major subjects of her era, including the fight for women’s suffrage, the plight of immigrants, World War I, jazz, unemployment, and racial discrimination.

On Feb. 7, the day the exhibition opens, Levin will deliver a lecture, "Theresa Bernstein: Forgotten Fame," at 5 p.m. in Bonchek Lecture Hall of the Ann and Richard Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building. The lecture, which is open to the public, will be followed by a reception in the Phillips Museum's Sally Mather Gibson Curriculum Gallery.

The exhibition will feature 44 paintings Bernstein created between 1912 and 1972, all of them drawn from public and private collections. The works include "Carnegie Hall with Paderewski," a portrayal of the Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski Bernstein painted in 1914. 

  • theresa bernstein american painter 1930 photo
  • Franklin & Marshall College's Phillips Museum will exhibit 44 of Bernstein's art works. Here, Bernstein sits for a portrait in 1930. She recorded on canvas many of the 20th century's major historical events. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum)  

With the centennial of World War I this year, the exhibition will include the artist's depiction of anxious citizens in front of The New York Times Building in "Reading the War News," completed in 1915.

Another painting, "The Immigrants," is a 1923 piece featuring a mother and child that Levin said might have captured Bernstein's experience of journeying from her birthplace of Krakow, Poland, when she was 1 year old. The exhibition also includes her portrait of the jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker in 1953.

The traveling exhibit opened in New York City last fall and makes its first stop at F&M before moving on to museums in Massachusetts, Philadelphia and Florida, said Teri Edelstein, consulting director of the Phillips Museum.

"The art of Theresa Bernstein is especially enthralling because her life and her art relate to so many touchstones of history and culture," Edelstein said. "I think all of our visitors will be fascinated to see the 20th century through her eyes.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum's Dana Gallery will present works from the permanent collection in "Art for Life’s Sake: Perceptions of American Realities in the 20th Century," an exhibit curated by Alison Tufano, an F&M senior and the College's Andrew W. Mellon Pre-Baccalaureate Fellow. 

  • Theresa Bernstein 1915 reading the war news
  • Reading the War News, 1915, oil on canvas, Private Collection.

"Art for Life's Sake" offers a glimpse of the 20th century, from the evolving urban geography to women's changing roles. Featured works include images of women in the early 1900s by Lancaster County native Caroline Peart, depictions of African-Americans by Philadelphia-based artist Raphael Soyer, and scenes of immigrant life by William Gropper and Andreas Feininger.

The museum's Nissley Gallery will feature prominent loans from The Sigmund M. and Mary B. Hyman Collection, including works by Robert Philipp, Hayley Lever, and Jerome Myers. The museum is also borrowing works by Marguerite Zorach from a private collection to provide additional 20th-century perspectives.

Yet another example of Bernstein's work, a mural the U.S. Treasury commissioned her to paint in 1938 as part of a New Deal relief program, is on permanent display in the Manheim, Pa., post office.

With financial support form the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, several F&M professors are incorporating the display into their coursework, including

Associate Professor of Art Virginia Maksymowicz, Associate Professor of Art History Linda Aleci, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History Christine Filippone of Millersville University. 

  • Theresa Bernstein 1914 carnegie hall with paderewski
  • Carnegie Hall with Paderewski, 1914, oil on canvas, Martin and Edith Stein Collection.

Here is a full list of exhibition-related events, all of which will be held in the Sally Mather Gibson Curriculum Gallery of the museum unless otherwise noted:

-- A Cappella Singing Performance, 6:30-7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 13, with Sweet Ophelia, The Chessman, Poor Richards, and Kite and Keys

-- Selection of short films by Maya Deren, 7:30-9 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 18, co-sponsored by the Department of Theatre, Dance and Film and Moviate, a Harrisburg-based avant-garde cinema house

-- Panel Discussion, 2 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 22: Theresa Bernstein: Eyewitness to the 20th Century, with F&M Associate Professor of Music Matthew Butterfield, Millersville University Assistant Professor of Art History Christine Filippone, and F&M Associate Professor of German Jennifer Redman

-- Lecture, 5-6 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 27: Looking at the Modern World: Marguerite Zorach and Theresa Bernstein, with Associate Professor of Art History Linda Aleci

-- Lecture, 5-6 p.m., Wednesday, March 5: In the Golden Land: Immigrants, Jews and America, with F&M Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and History Matthew Hoffman

-- Selection of short films by Marie Menken, 7:30-9 p.m., Tuesday, March 18, co-sponsored by the Department of Theatre, Dance and Film and Moviate

-- Lecture, 5-6:30 p.m., Thursday, March 20: Drawing Lessons From Theresa Bernstein, with F&M Associate Professor of Art and Art History Virginia Maksymowicz

-- Franklin & Marshall Jazz Ensemble Performance, 2 p.m., Saturday, March 29

-- Selection of short films by Su Friedrich, 7:30-9 p.m., Tuesday, April 8, co-sponsored by the Department of Theatre, Dance and Film and Moviate

-- Guided Tours of the Theresa Bernstein Exhibition, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Tuesdays, from Feb. 11 - April 8, (except March 11)