Friday, November 9, 2018

Theresa Bernstein at the SCMA: Armistice Day Parade

Theresa Ferber Bernstein, American (1890-2002), Armistice Day Parade: The Altar of Liberty, 1919, oil on linen, Purchased with the Kathleen Compton Sherrerd, class of 1954, Acquisition Fund for American Art, SC 2015:42

Born in Krakow, Poland, Bernstein’s parents immigrated to the United States when she was an infant. She began her training in Philadelphia at the School of Design for Women (today, the Moore College of Art & Design), and later studied with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League in New York City. Her portrayal of life in New York City at the turn of the century draws on the work of artists such as Robert Henri, among others. Her paintings address a range of subjects including unemployment, women’s suffrage, World War I, the immigrant experience, Jewish culture, and jazz. A common thread that runs throughout her art is her interest in depicting people, either as individual portraits or as groups in urban settings.

Bernstein won countless awards for her paintings, especially in her early career. Among her many achievements, she co-founded the Society of Independent Artists with John Sloan and was a founding member of the New York Society of Women Artists. She was also a member of the North Shore Art Association and of the National Association of Women Artists. Bernstein received many awards for her art, which was highly regarded by art critics. For example, Frederick James Gregg wrote of her work, “There is nothing feminine about the paintings of Theresa Bernstein.” (Frederick James Gregg, “Theresa Bernstein a Realist in the Old Sense of the Word,” New York Herald, November 2, 1919, sec. 3, p. 46.) Gregg compared Bernstein to her male contemporaries in order to put her on equal footing with them as a mark of her talent. In fact, she participated in important exhibitions alongside the likes of John Sloan, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, and her husband, artist William Meyerowitz. However, her success only went so far, and she was excluded from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1929 “Paintings by Nineteen American Artists” exhibition, in which Georgia O’Keeffe was the only woman represented. Perhaps it was due to the male-dominated art world that Bernstein often signed her works with only her maiden name, as in the SCMA’s painting.

The Armistice Day Parade: The Altar of Liberty, is from an early series depicting parades that marked the end of World War I. In 1918, the war ended on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at 11 am, when the armistice between Germany and the Allied forces went into effect. One year later, Bernstein watched the Armistice Day parade as it made its way down Fifth Avenue in New York City. This painting records the Altar of Liberty, a temporary structure created by architect Thomas Hastings and placed in Madison Square Park to promote the fourth Liberty Loan campaign that helped fund the war. Purchasing war bonds was viewed as part of every American citizens’ duty. This same patriotic spirit infuses the crowd that has gathered before this monumental structure to cheer on members of the US armed forces. The pageantry and vivid colors of this and other paintings from the series celebrate American identity and recent victory as a unifying force.

Bernstein had a long, prolific career as an artist and her oeuvre spans the entire twentieth century. She died in New York just before her 112th birthday. In addition to her art, she made contributed significantly to the art world, particularly in her advancement of women artists. Her most famous student was the sculptor Louise Nevelson, whose work is also represented in the SCMA’s collection. In addition to Bernstein’s painting and an etching housed in the SCMA, her art is part of many prestigious public and private collections.

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