The vibrant, colorful paintings of a vibrant, colorful painter
Exhibit of canvases from Gloucester and beyond shows Theresa Bernstein's confident touch
GLOUCESTER -- Theresa Bernstein, the critics said, painted like a man. Sometimes they celebrated her for it. Sometimes they derided her.
But the artist, who was 111 when she died in 2002, likely paid no heed. Bernstein painted like herself: with defiant energy, bold and eager lines, gaudy tones, and a passionate interest in her subjects. She handled paint with brio.
``Theresa Bernstein, American Modernist," the vibrant exhibit at the Cape Ann Historical Museum, showcases the painter's work, with a particular spotlight on her Gloucester canvases. For several decades, New Yorker Bernstein and her husband, the painter and printmaker William Meyerowitz, summered and made art in Gloucester.
The show opens with a handful of very early works. The brooding and impressionistic ``Dance Hall" (1911), depicting the dark hall silhouetted against the setting sun, weighs heavy with thickly applied paint and amateurish chiaroscuro. It's all atmosphere, with none of the humming, headlong energy the artist later summoned with color and line.
Another 1911 canvas, ``Self Portrait," shows more promise, evidencing Bernstein's deft touch with a brush and the energetic power of outline that later would become one of her trademarks. Her sharp eyes suggest that even at 21, she wasn't a woman to tolerate stuff and nonsense.
Bernstein affiliated herself with the Ashcan School, the group of New York artists who made it their goal to portray the social realities of everyday life. ``The Readers," a 1914 painting, has a group of men (including her father) beneath a reading lamp at the New York Public Library. The paint here is thicker than she would ultimately use, but Bernstein's bold, simplified figures and her fascination with large groups of people began to manifest in this painting. For Bernstein, a crowd became a single, bristling, organic entity.
Look at ``The Armistice Day, New York Public Library," painted in 1918: It's strong and clear, with the library sketched out in swaths of brown and gray. The crowd is a series of swarming dots and gestures below; flags flap overhead. Nothing here is carefully defined -- the scene is as easy as the mood of the day; the sense of celebration and relief is palpable.
The artist was lured to Gloucester in 1916 for the beaches, where she could watch people ``in their most unconscious moments, open to the air and sun, in natural poses," she later wrote in a memoir. That year, she met Meyerowitz (``I felt as if the sun had burst into my little room," she wrote of their first encounter); they married in 1919.
``Summer Picnic" (1919) depicts the couple lounging on the grass. She sits contentedly, a white cloak falling off her bare shoulder. Her shirtless groom leans on the blanket behind her, head resting on his hand, holding an apple, looking thoroughly satisfied.
Only the apple suggested the two might be tossed from paradise. Bernstein painted ``Joy of Life" in 1920, again showing the couple on the grass -- this time from a distance, and surrounded by children playing. That year, Bernstein gave birth to their first and only child, a daughter, Isadora, who died two months later from pneumonia. After her baby's death, Bernstein returned to ``Joy of Life" and painted over one figure, turning a wandering fisherman at the edge of the canvas into the Grim Reaper.
Life went on, and Bernstein continued to paint. ``Folly Cove" (1921) has her reveling in oils -- she had a taste for garish colors, and here the yellow sea foams white and the sand burns coral orange. Her touch is light but confident, carving out sea and rocky coast with easy strokes and drawing in figures on the beach with easy black gestures, delineating individuals yet making each a part of the compositional whole.
Gloucester was a bustling artists colony in those days. Stuart Davis lived across the street, and painters and etchers Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle de Veaux Clements had a cottage nearby. Bernstein, Meyerowitz, and Davis were a generation or more younger than Hale and Clements (Hale's jaunty, boyish self-portrait is up in the ``Americans in Paris" show at the Museum of Fine Arts), but they all socialized.
Bernstein's ``New England Ladies" (1925) captures several Gloucester grand dames, including Hale and Clements, at an elderberry wine party, and demonstrates another way the artist excelled at depicting crowds; you want to know everybody in that room, and she makes you feel that you can.
Bernstein was still painting as late as 1998; it's a pity that most of the works in ``Theresa Bernstein, American Modernist," many of which are from the collection of Edith A. and Martin B. Stein , don't go much beyond the 1920s. There are a few -- a 1948 beach scene, a picture of folks on line at the bank from the 1970s. The liveliness of her palette and the assertion of her line didn't wane. Nor, apparently, did her pluck.