The group of artists that have come to be known as the Ashcan School met in Philadelphia and moved to New York City, where they captured scenes of daily life in many of the city’s working class and immigrant neighborhoods. Theresa Bernstein’s life took an identical trajectory, but she’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as such renowned Ashcan painters as Robert Henri, William Glackens and John Sloan. William Valerio hopes to change that with Woodmere Art Museum’s new exhibit, “Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art.”
“In a way it’s righting a wrong,” says Valerio, Woodmere’s director. “She had her own fame and recognition in her lifetime for the accomplishments of her career, but if you say ‘Theresa Bernstein’ today she’s largely forgotten. And I think she’s forgotten in part because she was a woman and in part because she was a person of the Jewish faith.
“She was, however, a part of that Philadelphia contingent in New York who made a substantial contribution to the stream of American art, and I think that that needs to be recognized.”
Bernstein was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1890 and moved to Philadelphia with her parents as an infant. Encouraged by her father, she studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art & Design) and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before settling in New York in 1912. While she remained in New York for the rest of her life, Bernstein maintained ties to Philadelphia and was a member of the Philadelphia Ten, a group of female artists who banded together in the years following World War I.
She painted scenes of Jewish and immigrant life, finding inspiration in public spaces from suffragette rallies to jazz clubs. Her life and work spanned the century; she died in 2002 at the age of 112, having continued to work until two years before her passing. Given her choice of public rather than domestic subjects, she was often paid the dubious compliment that she “painted like a man.” As Valerio points out, “That kind of says it all. Her work was admired, but it was admired because it wasn’t ‘womanly.’ It had a robust, direct feel to it so that people thought it must be made by a man.”
Art history 101
Glancing through the catalogue for the exhibit, which was curated by professor Gail Levin at the City University of New York, Valerio pauses at a stunning piece titled “Easter Sunday—The Polish Church,” which depicts a group of figures gathered for a sermon.
“These are the faces of people who work hard, who have lives that are not easy,” he says. “Van Gogh was the artist who brought generations of artists the inspiration to appreciate the worn texture of, say, clothing that shows that it’s been worn hard, and I feel like [Bernstein] conveys that in a very human way.”
"Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art"
July 26-Oct. 26
Woodmere Art Museum
9201 Germantown Ave.