If City University of New York art history professor Gail Levin had not stumbled upon the then unknown artist Theresa Bernstein in the course of her research on Edward Hopper in the 1980’s, she might be unknown still. Instead, Levin positioned her front and center in the noteworthy retrospective, “Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art,” which opened last December in New York City. Luckily, one of the show’s four traveling stops is at Endicott College’s Walter Manninen Center for the Arts, where it will remain until July 11.
“Self Portrait” (1931)
Notwithstanding Levin’s curated exhibit and in-depth catalogue, Bernstein remains unknown, despite the fact that she exhibited in every decade of the twentieth century. Born in Cracow in 1890, she was raised in Philadelphia by educated and cultured Jewish immigrant parents. Her travels to Europe in 1905 and 1911 awakened a passion for modern art, and her paintings reflect her admiration of Manet, Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne. When her family relocated to New York City in 1912, she established a studio near Bryant Park and began painting in earnest, exhibiting alongside Edward Hopper in 1919.
“The Immigrants” (1923)
Although Bernstein pretended she was American-born, many of her paintings reflect her compassion for the trials her fellow immigrants faced. In “The Immigrants” (1923), for example, Bernstein emphasizes maternal tenderness in the foreground of the large oil painting. Set in the 1920’s, the immigrants she portrays are arriving in New York City aboard the Cunard R.M.S. “Aquitania.” At a time when the U.S. government was passing laws restricting immigration, Bernstein was concerned for the future of her fellow Jews who had been escaping Russian Empire persecution in large numbers since the 1890’s.
“The Milliners” (1919)
Many of her paintings reflect Jewish subjects. “The Milliners” (1919) incorporates portraits of Bernstein’s mother, mother in- law, sisters-in-law and her housekeeper. With the exception of the housekeeper, all were Jewish immigrants, many of whom worked as hat makers in New York’s garment trades. “The Menorah” (1948) celebrates Israel’s birth in 1948 with its symbol of statehood. “The Cone Sisters” (1930) is an intimate portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone, daughters of German-Jewish immigrants. The wealthy Baltimore sisters, trailblazing patrons of modern artists, supported Picasso and Matisse.
“The Cone Sisters” (1930)
Bernstein married fellow painter William Meyerowitz, sharing 63 years of marriage and an Upper West Side studio. She outlived him by 23 years, dying just shy of her 112th birthday in 2002. Starting in 1916, the couple summered in Gloucester every year, members of a well-known colony of artists. Bernstein painted beach and other local scenes, and William often played chess with their neighbors. “The Country Fair” (1917) is a loving, intimate snapshot of Bernstein’s connections to the seaport town that offered her a “cradle-like serenity” and the inspiration of authentic American crowds.
Bernstein’s most exciting paintings, however, are post-1929, the year she discovered jazz. Her style is freer, less chained to conventions of color, brush stroke and composition. The three paintings “Charlie Parker” (1953), “Cab Calloway-Minnie the Moocher” (1935) (below left) and “Lil Hardin & Louis Armstrong” (1927) (below right) are an almost surrealist triptych so full of life that that if you close your eyes, you can hear the music that inspired them.
In her “Credo,” Theresa Bernstein stated, “I believe that my work will be more appreciated and understood as it is more seen and studied, just as sound or a language becomes more coherent.” Her appearance at Endicott College in Beverly couldn’t be more fitting. The park-like setting of the Manninen Center for the Arts makes for a perfect summer outing, and the discovery of a new artist’s work is like a breath of sunny air. How often, after all, do we have the opportunity to view an artist and her work with truly fresh eyes, unclouded by preconceptions and judgments? Be sure to take this opportunity to do just that.
Pictured at top: “The Menorah” (1948)
The park-like setting of Endicott College’s Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts
All photos by Shelley A. Sackett
The exhibit is showing in the Manninen Center for the Arts at Endicott College, Beverly. Through July 11. For directions and hours, visit endicott.edu/Center-For-The-Arts.
For an in-depth interview with curator Gail Levin, read Regina Weinreich’s article at forward.com.