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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Theresa Bernstein

Theresa Bernstein Self-portrait, 1914
Theresa Bernstein died February 12, 2002; of that much we're certain. Her date of birth is considerably less so. Various documentation places her birth anywhere from 1886 to 1895, making her at least 106 and perhaps as old as 115 at the time of her death. Even after a stroke forced her to quit painting, she continued to be much the same feisty, spirited, savvy, strong-willed artist who, in 1917, helped found The Philadelphia Ten, a group of female artists rising up in response to the exclusively male group known as, The Eight. This group later became better known as New York's Ashcan School. With a legacy of art spanning nearly a century, she's earned her retirement. Probably born in around 1890 into a Jewish, middle-class family who moved from Philadelphia to New York in 1912, Bernstein's work has one foot planted there while the other rests in Gloucester, the Massachusetts seaport where she long maintained a summer home. She first studied art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) then continued her studies in New York at the Art Students' League, studying under William Merritt Chase, with whom she helped form the Society of Independent Artists. Her first one-woman show took place in 1919.

Gloucester Harbor 1927, Theresa Bernstein
Three elements of content dominate Theresa Bernstein's work - music, crowds, and the sea. Although there's no evidence of her having painted a crowded concert by the sea, there are plenty of pictures of crowded concerts painted in New York venues such as Carnegie Hall. Next to Toscanini, you'll also find Charlie Parker at a New York jazz club. Many of her New York scenes depict street crowds, everything from holiday shoppers to food lines during the Depression. Her Gloucester paintings include crowds on the beach, crowded wharves with their fishing boats. She was often criticized as well as glorified for "painting like a man." Her legendary determination was such that when she broke her right hand, she simply switched to painting with her left. When she could no longer hold a brush, she squeezed paint directly from the tube to the canvas.

Hot Chocolates, 1919-28, Theresa Bernstein
Stylistically, Theresa Bernstein's paintings are not unlike the Social Realism of the Ashcan school, but not quite as gritty. There is, perhaps, a tendency toward expressionist colour and brush technique, though she by no means embraced the Abstract Expressionism that washed over her New York art world in the middle of her career. This refusal to adapt and adopt left her out in the cold. For twenty or thirty years she sold little. Today, thanks to Joan Whalen, her work brings prices as high as $100,000. Joan rediscovered Theresa Bernstein in 1998 with a show of some 44 pieces of work at her 57th Street gallery.  Whalen reports that up until just before her death, Theresa would call her daily to ask how many paintings she'd sold. Even good agents need to be prodded every so often.

On the Docks, 1916, Theresa Bernstein

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