Published: March 5, 2007
Increasingly becoming considered one of the finest American painters of the Twentieth Century, a leader of the New Hope group/Pennsylvania Impressionists, and a gifted teacher, Daniel Garber (1880‱958) has yet to receive the recognition that many art critics and curators believe he deserves. A chronicler of the sunny side of nature and a dedicated instructor, he created appealing and expressive views of the Pennsylvania countryside and influenced hundreds of students. He excelled at transforming homely, often ugly, subjects into something tranquil and beautiful. Because he never embraced modernism nor later, abstractionism, he has been somewhat overlooked in the latter half of the last century.
Appreciation for Garber’s oeuvre and other accomplishments is bound to grow as a result of a long overdue retrospective, “Daniel Garber: Romantic Realist,” on view in an unusual collaboration between the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the James A. Michener Art Museum. The Pennsylvania Academy is featuring works executed between 1901 and 1929, on view through April 8, and the Michener is presenting works executed from 1930 to 1955, on view through May 6.
The exhibitions are curated by Lance Humphries, author of the recently published Garber catalogue raisonné, and organized by Lynn Marsden-Atlass, senior curator at the Pennsylvania Academy, and Brian H. Peterson, senior curator at the Michener Art Museum.
Some 170 paintings and works on paper in the two shows illustrate Garber’s leading role in the Pennsylvania Impressionist movement, which artist/critic Guy Pene du Bois called America’s “first truly national expression.” Painting in studios in Philadelphia and rural Bucks County, Garber created distinctively decorative, astutely composed, enduringly appealing canvases. As Peterson observes, “The wide scope of the exhibit[s] provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors to see not only his famed landscapes but also his ambitious and evocative figurative work.”
Born into a farming family in North Manchester, Ind., Garber first studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, before enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he was taught primarily by Thomas Anshutz, but also by William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux, 1899‱905. Anshutz, who preached the gospel of realism, also “encouraged looking to life and nature for inspiration while at the same time finding one’s own individual expression,” Humphries writes in the exhibition catalog.
Traces of Garber’s Munich-impacted studies in Cincinnati, plus Anshutz’s teachings, influenced an early Garber painting, “The Aged Sycamore,” 1903, a large, darkly toned landscape dominated by vine-clad trees. Chase’s influence †as well as that of James McNeill Whistler and Japanese prints †is apparent in a memorable work, “The Studio Wall,” 1914, showing Garber’s kimono-clad wife in profile holding a vase before a simple, antique bench and blue shadows of Gothic window mullions.
Awarded the prestigious Cresson travel scholarship, Garber toured, sketched and painted in Europe for two years. Exposure to works by French Impressionists, as well as the light and atmosphere of England, Italy and France, prompted several canvases suffused with brilliant sunlight, such as “Evening †Tuscany,” 1906.
Returning to the United States in 1907, Garber and his wife, the former Mary Franklin (a fellow academy student), settled permanently outside the Bucks County town of Lumberville, near the Delaware River. Until the mid-1920s the Garbers also maintained a winter home/studio, no longer extant, on Green Street in Philadelphia.
In paintings like “South Room Green Street,” 1921 (featuring his wife and daughter) and “Interior: Green Street,” 1924, repainted 1925 (with his wife as the seated figure), Garber expressed what he called “my love for my surroundings and family.”
Joining the Pennsylvania Academy faculty in 1909, Garber taught until 1950. His students benefited from his advocacy of traditional aesthetic values and his inspiring painting demonstrations. Among other things, he urged his pupils to view landscapes in planes like “curtains,” echoing the decorative effect he achieved in his paintings. He also taught at the academy’s summer art school in Chester Springs, Penn.
“Cuttalossa,” Garber’s Lumberville property, consisted of a complex of buildings, including an old house, mill and barn/studio with large French doors. Those doors, often opened, formed the backdrop for paintings of family members, such as “Mother and Son,” 1933, depicting his wife and son playing chess.
This much-loved rural setting, where he dabbled in raising sheep, became crucial to Garber’s life and art. As he observed in 1929, “To know me now you would have to know the place. Everyone knows it’s half of me.” The Cuttalossa property survives as a private residence.
By all accounts, in appearance Garber was the antithesis of a flamboyant artist. His “Self Portrait” of 1911 shows a man of wariness and propriety. Of medium height, Garber became stocky and with a ruddy complexion. He was described in his later years by Bucks County painter Walter E. Baum as looking like “a country squire.” Observes Philadelphia Museum of Art curator of American art Kathleen Foster, “Garber’s life was as direct, simple and consistent as his paintings&Effects of harmonic balance and simplicity rule his work, just as they guided his life.”
Garber and fellow transplant Edward W. Redfield helped launch the group known as the New Hope School or Pennsylvania Impressionists. They stood out because of the virility and power of their swift, outdoor paintings, especially views of the Delaware River, landscapes with rushing streams and Bucks County towns. Redfield, particularly, was celebrated for completing in one day expressive, vigorously brushed views of winter. Garber’s portrait of William Langson Lathrop, 1935, suggests his admiration for the genial, aging patriarch of the New Hope painters.
In contrast to the spontaneity and vigor of his Bucks County compatriots, Garber’s approach was more methodical, and his art more delicate and lyrical. “People talk about impulse, about impressions, but that isn’t personal with me,” he said. “It is the study of a subject that appeals to me rather than any quick notebook impression of it.” In line with this philosophy, he repeatedly painted the same outdoor scenes, along with portrayals of his family and others indoors.
Adroitly juggling his family and teaching responsibilities, Garber became a prolific painter, exhibiting widely and winning just about every honor around, especially in the period 1910‱925. Riding a wave of interest in American art, Garber works were collected by numerous museums.
As the title of the retrospective suggests, Garber’s work was at once realistic and decorative or romantic. He frequently combined realism and fantasy, precise draftsmanship and decorative touches. His dreamlike visions often featured intense colors, scintillating light and strong tapestrylike patterns. “Luminous and tranquil,&⁛Garber’s] landscapes show the Impressionist tradition disciplined by an almost classical orderliness and softened by a lyrical idealism,” says Foster.
Between 1907 and 1922, Garber made his mark with paintings of Bucks County stone quarries that transformed natural land formations disfigured by the intrusion of man into scenes of tranquility and harmony. The damaged landscape often took on a lyrical quality, enhanced by the reflection of the quarry’s image in the rippling water of the Delaware River.
In an early standout, “The Hills of Byram,” 1909, Garber made the severely scarred hillside look almost tranquil amid muted, golden surroundings. In “Quarry, Evening,” 1913, which measures a sizable 50 by 60 inches, he softened the look of a large working quarry by delineating it in warm, harmonious colors. Similarly, in “The Quarry,” 1917, another 50-by-60-inch canvas, man’s exploitation of the great rock formation was muted by the artist’s concern for the subtle nuances of shape and detail and the land’s illumination in the radiant glow of shimmering water below. This canvas epitomizes Garber’s ability to infuse a smoky, bustling industrial subject with mystery and beauty and, sometimes, majesty.
In “Down the River,” 1922, Garber’s Lumberton quarry “glows like a jar of honey on a windowsill,” in the words of art historian Susan G. Larkin. Painting from a few miles downstream, “Garber distanced himself from&⁛the] mundane hustle, concentrating instead on the geological strata,” she adds.
With the help of shadows from an ancient overhanging tree and reflections in the millrace, Garber cast a romantic glow over “Old Mill,” 1921, depicting the New Hope gristmill that continued to grind grain for farmers until 1938. It subsequently became the Bucks County Playhouse. Fellow Bucks County artist Robert Spencer specialized in painting the area’s mills, tenements and backyards.
Garber also painted in the more traditional soft, muted tones of Impressionism, emphasizing decorative qualities. His dreamy spring landscapes featuring blossoming trees in vivid tonalities, like “Buds and Blossoms,” 1916, are particularly memorable. A similarly decorative, lyrical quality characterizes “Hawk’s Nest,” 1917.
Among Garber’s quiet, domestic figure paintings of his family, the standout is “Tanis,” 1915, showing his 9-year-old blond daughter standing barefoot in the doorway of his Cuttalossa studio. Backlit by brilliant blues and greens in a decorative landscape, she is bathed in bright sunshine that pours through her dress; Tanis glows in the reflected light. It is a beautiful canvas, as is “Mending,” 1918, with its glowing trees silhouetting Garber’s serious, intense wife sewing on a porch.
By 1920, heavier, tapestrylike textures and large two-dimensional patterns began to characterize Garber’s landscapes. The best example of this mature vision is the monumental “Tohickon,” 1920. In it, Humphries points out, “Garber utilized a compositional device he had come to favor †the use of a tree in shadow in the foreground creating a portal to view the background.” He adds that, “Whereas the tree is painted with incredible detail, the background, which has been flattened into one place, is realized quite quickly †yet at a distance of several feet it looks equally detailed.”
During an unusual excursion from Bucks County, Garber executed “Students of Painting,” 1923, while serving as artist-in-residence at the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation in Oyster Bay, N.Y. His largest work (129¼ by 257¼ inches), “A Wooded Watershed,” 1926, commissioned as a mural for Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial International Exposition, was rescued from obscurity at a Pennsylvania State University campus and installed at the Michener in 1994. Through a curtain of trees and a group of deer in the foreground, this huge work depicts a brightly lit, pristine landscape, reminiscent of the way the Delaware River Gap once looked.
The works on view at the Michener Museum, painted after 1929, to some extent reflect Garber’s early despondency about the Great Depression and the rise of nonrepresentational art. Setting himself apart from the avant-garde, he declared in 1935 that he wanted to “be in my small way an example if possible” of more traditional art. His optimism still infused a bright, cheerful view of riverside houses among trees in “Geddes Run,” 1930.
Garber’s increasing isolation from the New York art world and exhibitions helped prompt canvases featuring lonely farmhouses in hilly landscapes, like “Corn,” circa 1937, and “Haystacks, Kintnersville,” 1940. “Late Snow, Byram,” 1936, is a somber depiction of rural houses in the grip of winter. Garber’s testimonials to the simplicity of small town life included “Ellicott City †Afternoon,” 1940.
Figures became more prevalent in his later, generally brightly hued works, like “Lambertville Holiday,” 1941, showing visitors on the banks of the picturesque Delaware River. After a heart attack in 1942, Garber’s output lessened, although he did continue his interest in etching with works like “Spring Valley Willows,” 1942.
His last painting, “Willows Noonday,” 1955, an astutely painted, harmoniously hued, sun-filled canvas, showed Garber’s continued mastery almost to the end. He died in 1958, after falling from a ladder while trimming vines from the walls of his Cuttalossa studio. “Perhaps appropriately,” observes Humphries in the catalogue raisonné, “Garber died tending both nature and his studio, two objects intertwined in his artistic life.”
Garber’s reputation was largely shaped in the first quarter of the last century. The onset of modernism and abstraction after that shunted his work to the sidelines for years. Recent exhibitions of Garber and Pennsylvania Impressionists, creation of the Michener Museum with its focus on Bucks County art and last year’s publication of the Garber catalogue raisonné have renewed appreciation for his achievements. “Today,” says Humphries, “Garber is reemerging as one of the finest painters of the early Twentieth Century.”
The 48-page, illustrated catalog, with text by Humphries, is published by the Pennsylvania Academy and the Michener Museum and sells for $85.
Both museums have scheduled special programs, lectures, workshops and tours in connection with “Daniel Garber: Romantic Realist.”
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is at 118-128 North Broad Street. For information, 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org.
The James A. Michener Art Museum is at 138 Pine Street. For information. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.
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