Edith Neff’s Town: Philadelphia

Our Town

A Retrospective of Edith Neff (1943-1995) at the Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia until January 19, 2020

 

 

The words ‘the city’ – as in ‘I am in the city today’  – means two things in Philadelphia and only context tells which. 

The ‘city’ may mean New York and it may mean Philadelphia; so much traffic there is between them. 

 

 

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Mural Commission for the Lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1973-74, and details, oil on canvas. 

Loaned to the Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia by the University Science Center in 2019.

This is Powelton Village, a part of West Philadelphia which remains a diverse part of the city. 

The artist’s mother is on the extreme right of the painting.  Her husband is crossing the street on the center right. She depicts friends and strangers also.

 

 

There is, of course, nothing to compare to New York on the north American continent. 

But, of the many differences between the two cities, the way in which they are represented by graphic artists tells an important distinguishing truth.

 

 

 

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Detail of Mural Commission for the Lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1973-74, oil on canvas.

  The artist’s  mother is on the extreme left.

 

 

 

Graphic representation of New York – drawing, painting, photograph – runs to its immense physicality:  granite, concrete, steel, glass, vast rivers.  People are midgets in this landscape.

In Philadelphia, the overwhelming subject of such representation is her people.

This city is scaled for its people; this makes it one of the most ‘livable’ of American cities.  

 

 

 

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Detail of Mural Commission for the Lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1973-74,  oil on canvas

 

There is one group of people for whom this is not true:  the Lenni Lenape on whose land the city was built.

 

They were ethnically cleansed, after the death of William Penn, and banished westwards.  The names of their streams,  paths and forests, forest clearings and rivers cross cut William Penn’s grid and remain as a reminder of this immense sadness.

 

They remain also in the imaginative memory of Philadelphians participating in the annual new year Mummers Parade whose massive use of feathers derives from American Indian traditions.

 

 

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Mummers: New Year’s Day, 1984, and detail, oil on canvas.  Private collection on loan to Woodmere Art Museum in 2019. 

Members of the String Band Division who compose and play their own  music.

 

 

 

The prominence of her people emerges from those accidents of Philadelphia’s history and geography which have made the city so ‘livable’:

 

 

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Detail of Mural Commission for the Lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1973-74,  oil on canvas

 

 

 

Its foundation by Quakers, whose ethic is to make no distinctions between peoples; 

 

 

 

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Unphotograph One – Edith, February 10th, 1974; 1974 negative, c. 1975 print; hand-coloured gelatin print. David Lebe, American born 1948. Philadelphia Art Museum. 

Edith Neff in front of Detail of Mural Commission 

 

 

the passing of national power,  with all the complications thereof, early: first to New York and then to Washington, DC;

 

 

 

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Detail of Mural Commission for the Lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1973-74, oil on canvas

 

 

the holding down of the height of commercial and public buildings until the 1970s;

 

 

 

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Detail of Mural Commission for the Lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1973-74, oil on canvas

 

 

 

a predominant type of domestic housing stock (‘row house’) which has made of Philadelphia the city in which more people own the houses in which they live than in any other north American city;

 

 

 

 

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Detail of Mural Commission for the Lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1973-74, oil on canvas.

 

 

immense natural green (Fairmount Park) in the heart of the city spreading around

 

 

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Three Figures on Horseback, 1969, oil on canvas.  Loaned to the Woodmere Museum of Art in 2019 by the Free Library of Philadelphia

Horsemen of the Fletcher Street Urban Club in north Philadelphia, founded in the early 20th century, provides training and discipline to youths. 

Often you will turn and see a young boy riding a horse across Fairmount Park.

 

 

 

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Tumblers, 1988, oil on canvas. 

Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia

Children playing in Fairmount Park

 

 

 

one of her two rivers; which have made of park and river centers of recreation.

 

 

 

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Detail of Mural Commission for the Lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1973-74, oil on canvas

 

 

the pre-eminent place which Philadelphians took in the abolition of slavery and the long history of progressive politics which arose from this, from Quaker traditions, and from those of the many religious communities enabled by William Penn’s vision; and also from union and municipal activism. 

 

 

 

 

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Both details of Mural Commission for the Lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, 1973-74, oil on canvas

 

 

 

I found the painting below instructive on the artist’s view of the relationship of her people to Philadelphia: 

 

 

 

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The Magi, 1978, oil on canvas. 

Loaned by the Philadelphia Art Museum to Woodmere Museum  of Art in 2019

 

We are alerted that this painting may have symbolic freight as we approach it because of the triangular frame in which its three subjects are set: that frame so familiar to us from Renaissance religious paintings.

  

Here on the roof of a row house are the artist’s husband,  her friend, Thomas Stearns, and a model. 

 

 

 

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Detail of The Magi, 1978, oil on canvas. 

Loaned by the Philadelphia Art Museum to Woodmere Museum  of Art in 2019

 

 

This trinity are center stage and more consequential than the tall buildings behind them. 

Looking at the artist’s name for this painting,  its symbolism emerges:  The Magi. 

 

The Magi were foreigners who arrived at Jesus’ birthplace, bearing gifts.  Three men who came from different distant places and followed prophecy, foresight and hope to find and offer gifts to Jesus. 

 

I take this to be an allegory of immigrants to the city: peoples come from the distant everywhere bringing gifts to mark their appreciation of the city and hope for themselves.  

 

The artist’s parents were immigrants. She was of Russian Jewish and Irish stock.

 

The city is, today, a sanctuary city. I find this painting  – so unglitzy, so Philadelphia matter-of-fact apt and moving. 

Even more so given the legacy, the gifts, which this artist left her city. 

 

 

There is a second aspect of this artist’s work which is of  import for the sense of the belonging of a people to their  place. 

 

 

 

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Allegory, 1974-75, oil on canvas. 

Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2019

Philadelphia extends unofficially to the New Jersey coast; so large is the displacement to the coast of the people of the city in Summer and Autumn.

This is an allegorical scene set in Atlantic City.

Perhaps a commentary on the paucity of male nudes in our art tradition; perhaps also – during a time of loud and fervent Feminism –  on the depredations of the male sexual ego.

 

 

I suppose it can be said that almost all  immigrants to the United States come from countries and continents with long civilizations.  

 

These countries are ‘owned’ by their peoples not only by right of birth but also by the justification of their myths which bind them to their earth, their history, their cosmologies, their sociology, their pleasures:  the justification of their lives  in that particular place on earth and in no other. 

 

 

 

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Demeter Searching for the Lost Persephone, 1986,  and details, oil on canvas.  Woodmere Art Museum of Art.

Hades has kidnapped Persephone.  Her mother went through an extended period of search and grief before the matter was resolved by a compromise.

 

Outside of the mythic superstructures of its first peoples, the American Indians, and of the myths which describe the expansion of the Europeans of North America from sea to shining sea,

 

North America, which has its symbols,  does not seem to have any equivalent, coherent mythic superstructure (yet?).

 

 

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The Messenger, 1987, oil on canvas.  Private loan to Woodmere Museum  of Art in 2019 

Hermes has been sent by the Olympians to negotiate with Hades, sitting in green shirt, for a compromise to end his detention of Persephone.  Charon, who rows the dead to Hades across the Styx, is sitting on the banks of the river, listening. 

Persephone herself shows her hesitation in accepting her fate by the way she holds the pomegranate, symbol of marriage. 

She may be getting ready to throw it at us.

 

 

 

Which did not stop this artist.

 

Edith Neff began to adapt myths of Europe to the American context.  To Philadelphia. 

She began also to think of the city and its stories in allegorical terms as with The Magi above.

 

Can there be more heartfelt and equally more intellectual an evidence of an artist marking her attachment to her city?

 

 

The artist lived and worked at a time of large social ferment. 

She cycled all over the city, photographing in black and white.  Her work is of family, friends, people she did not know,  of incidents, of parks. Of daily life.

 

The delicacy of her portraits of black and white Americans when together in public is interesting.  

In most such paintings, there is a space, even if slight, between the races: a gap, a watchfulness, a wistfulness even among children.

The way it is.

 

 

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Swimming Pool at Hunting Park, oil on canvas, 1975-76, and details.  Woodmere Museum of Art

 

 

 

But not always.   Not necessarily with children.

 

 

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Girls on the Stoop, 1971-72, oil on canvas, and detail. 

Loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2019 by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

The 1000 block of Pine Street, Philadelphia

 

 

Here are some more of her works. 

 

Studies focusing also on light.

The artist was fortunate to have been raised close to Fairmount Park which, with its river, shares  its green-gold, silver-grey-blue light with surrounding streets. 

 

Of note also is the size of her paintings.  They are large, many almost full size.  Edith Neff said she wanted viewers to feel they could place themselves in the paintings.

Nor did she restrict her colour palette:  her colours are all the realistic colours of a city.

 

 

 

 

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Portrait of Ruth Smith (1905-2003), the Artist’s Mother Sitting at a Table, 1964, oil on canvas.  Woodmere Musuem of Art.

A Russian Jewish emigree from the Ukraine when she was 16, she worked as a bookkeeper and factory worker in a clothing factory.  She continued her support of her family when her husband died in 1957.  She was an advocate for the education of her daughters and introduced them to art and enrolled them in art classes.

 

 

 

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The Dining Room, 1966, oil on canvas.

Woodmere Museum of Art.

The artist’s mother, two sisters, husband, Albert Neff (with crossed arms), and a friend in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia

 

 

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Old Man (Portrait of the Artist’s Father in the Backyard at 758 N. 26th Street), oil on canvas, 1967. 

Promised gift to the Woodmere Museum of Art.

 

 

 

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Triptych, 1967, oil on canvas. 

Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia.  (Taken across the second floor gallery of the Woodmere).

The artist’s mother from a photograph taken when she was still in Russia and 10 or 12 years old.  The artist and her mother in New York when her mother was in middle age.  The artist’s mother in later middle age shown with her own mother.

 

 

 

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Self-Portrait, 1967, oil on canvas. 

Private collection on view at the Woodmere Museum of Art in 2019.  Thought to be the earliest of the artist’s self-portraits.

 

 

 

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Starr Garden Playground, Lombard Street, 1968/69, oil on canvas. 

Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia

 

 

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Self-portrait with Albert, 1969, oil on linen. 

Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia

 

 

 

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Self-Portrait, 1971, oil on canvas. 

Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia from its web site.

 

 

 

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Girl in Blue Coat, oil on masonite, 1978. 

Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia

 

 

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The Factory is Burning, and Clouds of Smoke Obscure the Sky, 1972, oil on canvas. 

Please Touch Museum Collections, Philadelphia on loan to the Woodmere Museum  of Art in 2019

 

 

 

 

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Nude (Warren Muller) on Sidney’s Balcony, 1972, oil on canvas. 

Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia. (The photo was taken across the second floor gallery of the musuem).

The artist’s friend, Warren Muller, an actor and performance artist, is posing on the balcony of the painter, Sidney Goodman.  Muller would sometimes reads poetry nude.

 

 

 

 

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A 1974 photograph of the artist in her studio taken by Terry Hourigan for an article about her work in American Artist Magazine.

 

 

 

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Portrait of my Family Not Far From Where I Grew Up, 1975, oil on canvas. 

Philadelphia Art Museum on loan to the Woodmere Museum of Art in 2019.

The artist’smother and sisters not far from her natal home.

 

 

 

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Figures in the Park with Passing Shower, 1976, oil on canvas. 

Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2019.

Harry Soviak, close friend and colleague of the artist, with his partner, Vincent D’Aquila, and their dalmatian

 

 

 

 

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Portrait of Oliver – Harry Soviak’s dog, 1979, pastel on paper. 

Photo from the website of Woodmere Museum of Art to whom this was a gift.

 

 

 

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Trained at one of the city’s art institutions, the artist knew her art history and she knew the paintings of the collections in Philadelphia. 

 

She noted how useful the historical record was to her because they suggested, she said, possible poses for her compositions.

These children are lounging on a real cement wall in the 800 block of Pine Street. 

But I imagine that she knew the shape of the lounging about in the painting below this in the Philadelphia Art Museum.

 

 

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Early Evening, Children Playing, 1977, pastel and charcoal on Arches buff covered stock. 

Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2019 (photo from its website)

 

 

 

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A Reading from Homer, 1885. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1836-1912, British born the Netherlands

Oil on canvas.  Philadelphia Art Museum

 

 

 

 

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Self-Portrait, 1978, oil on canvas, and detail.  Private collection on loan to the Woodmere Museum of Art in 2019

 

 

The self-portrait above was based on this painting below of Helen Fourment by Peter Paul Rubens:  the artist holding a paint brush and not concerned with the fur slipping off her shoulders.

 

 

 

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Portrait of Helena Fourment (The Fur), 1636-1638,  oil on canvas.  Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577-1640.  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.  Photo from the web.

 

 

 

It is possible that the artist had a memory of this self-portrait below also in her mind especially for the angle of her own gaze, facial poise of an alert, mature readiness, both feet firmly on the ground, a reference to plants, and the placement of a door open to a room of possibilities and of her work.

 

 

 

Birthday, 1942, oil on canvas.  Dorothea Tanning, 1910-2012, American.  Philadelphia Art Museum

 

 

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Harry on the Promenade, 1979, compressed charcoal on paper.  Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2019

Harry Soviak who moved to Brooklyn in 1979 is here shown on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with his dalmatian.

 

 

 

 

 

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Detail of Evening Light, 1986-87, oil on canvas.  Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

A friend of her mother (seated) and the artist, Eugene Bakuskus, her colleague, and his children in the park towards sunset.

 

 

 

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Self-portrait, 1989, oil on canvas. 

Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia

 

 

 

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Self-portrait, 1993, compressed charcoal on paper 

Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia

 

 

 

 

 

Recognized young for her talent, the artist has, nevertheless, not received her due.

 

Her realism has taken second place for decades in the universe of the art establishment to conceptual art. 

Also the artist was in the midst of her work when her life was cut short at 52 by illness.

 

 

 

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A gallery of the Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia in September 2019

 

I hope that the Woodmere Museum of Art’s exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue which includes the contextual recollections and appreciation of fellow artists and family,  will go some way to restoring Edith Neff to her place as an exact and most gifted recorder of a time and a place:

Philadelphia towards the end of the American century.

 

 

 

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Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, 1995, oil on canvas, and detail. 

Philadelphia Art Museum loan to Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia.

  The fate of Belisarius transferred to Philadelphia. 

Belisarius: a 6th century successful Byzantine military commander whose supposed fate reduced him to begging on the street with his grandson before his death. 

 

 

Sic transit gloria mundi:  the glory of this world passes quickly. 

 

May hers linger and grow………

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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