Published: August 17, 2004
While his Bucks County contemporaries painted scenes from nature, Robert Spencer focused his attention on the area’s working men and women in and around mills, construction sites and tenements. The current exhibition, “The Cities, The Towns, The Crowds. The Paintings of Robert Spencer,” up through September 19 at the Michener’s main galleries, documents his deft, painterly touch and off-beat subject matter. The exhibition should bring Spencer the greater recognition he deserves.
Because his work is so seldom featured in exhibitions these days, the Robert Spencer show at the James A. Michener Art Museum is particularly welcome. Organized by the museum’s senior curator Brian H. Peterson, author of a much admired book, Pennsylvania Impressionism, the exhibition’s more than 45 paintings illuminate Spencer’s singular vision of everyday life around Bucks County.
The son of an itinerant Swedenborgian minister, Spencer (1879-1931) was born in Nebraska, but moved around with his family while growing up. In New York City around the turn of the century he studied at the National Academy of Design and under William Merritt Chase and Henri at the New York School of Art.
Spencer moved to Bucks County in 1906, where he began to turn out dark, murky paintings. He learned the value of deft brushwork in careful compositions from Daniel Garber, a gifted teacher who became an important member of the New Hope Impressionists. Drawing on his exposure to Henri and the rebellious realism of the Ashcan school, Spencer sought out the unglamorous side of life around his new home – dilapidated mills, worn tenements, cluttered backyards and bedraggled blue collar workers. A patrician who empathized with the working class, he concentrated on rundown structures – and the folks who lived and worked in them.
“A landscape without a building or a figure is a very lonely picture to me,” Spencer declared.
Elements of social realism and genre painting infuse Spencer’s canvases generally executed with an Impressionist touch. His palette tended to be more somber than other Impressionists, reflecting the gritty reality of his principal subject matter.
The artist created highly accomplished, imaginative work, finding his artistic voice around 1910 with straightforward, spontaneous paintings, such as “The Marble Shop,” circa 1910, and “The White Tenement,” 1913, depicting aging buildings and messy yards. Also of note “Three Houses,” 1911, featuring a trio of well-worn tenement buildings. “Grey Mills,” “Five o’Clock June,” and “The Closing Hour,” all 1913, each 30 by 36 inches, showing workers going to and from drab factory buildings.
These early efforts were well received by critics and museums began to take notice. In 1914 The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired “Repairing the Bridge,” 1913, a quintessential Spencer canvas in which a gang of workers labor to shore up an old stone bridge leading to faceless buildings.
As Duncan Phillips, Spen-cer’s friend and avid collector observed in 1926, Spencer “has become the philosopher and the laureate of the little American industrial village, painting again and again its old houses, its mysterious factories, its ‘types’ coming out of the mill at the noon whistle.”
The catalog contains extensive excerpts from the interesting correspondence between the brooding artist and Phillips, the optimistic, wealthy patron, who founded what is now The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Phillips, who regarded Spencer as “a rebel always against the standardized and the stereotyped in art,” felt the American followed in the grand tradition of Daumier, Delacroix and Goya. Spencer had the “ability to express in pictures a significant relation of figures to landscape,” said Phillips.
Phillips purchased everything from nudes posed against a hazy Delaware River, “On the Bank,” 1929, to crowd scenes “Mountebanks and Thieves,” 1923, to workers in cluttered surroundings, “Ship Chandler’s Row,” 1926.
Phillips especially admired “The Evangelist,” 1919, which he labeled “a masterpiece of American genre.” Based on his own experiences as the son of a nomadic clergyman, Spencer used appropriately muted, somber colors to depict a preacher speaking from a makeshift platform at an outdoor meeting beside a river.
Spencer’s precise draftsmanship and idiosyncratic use of flecks of color are reflected in “The Red Boat,” circa 1918, from the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Here, a sturdy canal boat is pulled past a grist mill and a silk mill, symbols of a way of life that was fast disappearing in Bucks County.
While his paintings of workers and their places of work and residence were executed in sober tones – giving them a tonalist feel – Spencer energetically utilized agitate brushwork and a brighter palette in happier landscape canvases. Examples of this more Impressionist style include “May Breezes,” 1914, in the White House Collection, “Crossroads,” 1918, “Flowing Water,” 1924, and “Riviera Beach,” 1928.
Hats off to Peterson and the Michener for assembling this rewarding show. The 160-page Spencer catalog has a text by Peterson that covers all aspects of Spencer’s productive but tragically abbreviated career. A collaboration between the Michener and University of Pennsylvania Press, it is priced at $39.95 (hardcover).
The Spencer exhibition is on view at the Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street.
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