American Impressionists at the Michener Art Museum

It’s well off the beaten path, but this the art museum junkie has found another small American art museum that he’d like to visit again if he ever has a chance. It’s the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which is about halfway between Philadelphia and Allentown.

The museum is, of course, named for the prolific late author of Hawaii and other historical novels; Emsworth used to read him (The Source was his personal favorite). It was Michener’s money and art collection that made the museum possible, and in fact the museum includes a small re-creation of his study, with his typewriter (the very typewriter he’s shown with in the picture above), some manuscripts, parts of his library, and so on. But the focus of the museum is on a modest collection of American art, not on Michener.

The Michener Art Museum is about 20 years old, and it’s a counterpart of sorts to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut. (See my post on the Griswold museum.) While the museum in Old Lyme focuses entirely on American impressionists who worked at the art colony there, like Willard Metcalf and Childe Hassam, the best part of the collection at the Michener consists of first-quality examples of painters who worked at the New Hope art colony in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, including two of my favorite American impressionists, Edward W. Redfield and Daniel Garber. (Redfield’s 1912 painting “Cherry Blossoms” is just above.)

The works of these Pennsylvania impressionists resonated strongly with Emsworth, a native of the Commonwealth. In the northwest part of the state where I grew up, not much has changed in the last hundred years; many of the old houses, barns, and garages are still standing. Redfield’s richly worked Fleecydale Road (above) was probably painted a hundred years ago (it has no date), but it’s a scene I recognized from my youth during the 1960s. It’s quintessentially Pennsylvanian, and of the paintings on display during my visit, I liked it best.

The pride and joy of the Michener Art Museum is a large, dramatic mural by Daniel Garber, dated 1926, entitled A Wooded Watershed, which is beautifully displayed at the end of the museum’s large gallery of Pennsylania impressionists. It’s at least 15 feet wide. I would have been interested to know where A Wooded Watershed was originally installed before this museum acquired it, but didn’t see anything about its history.

Some of Garber’s work has an almost magical, fairy-tale quality; one especially pleasing Garber painting entitled Springtime in the Village fell in this category. For reasons that are probably not obvious from my photos, Springtime in the Village, which is dated 1917, reminded me almost immediately of a 1892 painting by the French post-impressionist Paul Serusier titled Apple Picking that had appealed to us greatly when we saw it some years ago in an exhibition focusing on the School of Pont-Aven. An exhibit at the Michener indicated that Garber had studied in France for a couple of years; I wondered if Garber became familiar with Serusier’s work. Garber’s palette for this painting also reminded me of another Pont-Aven picture, Gauguin’s Christmas Night (The Blessing of the Oxen), which is now at the Indianapolis Art Museum.

I was struck once again with the fact that while hardly any European artists that we know in America today were painting in an impressionistic style after about 1910, many Americans continued to paint in an impressionistic style through the middle of the twentieth century. Most of the paintings I saw at the Michener Art Museum were impressionist landscapes. The finest, however, I felt, was an outstanding 1914 portrait by Garber of his wife in a kimono, entitled The Studio Wall.

Other American impressionists on display included Walter Schofield, William L. Lathrop, and George W. Sotter. In other, smaller galleries there were some modern paintings by Elsie Driggs, Karl Knaths, and Helen Frankenthaler, among others, and a few from the first part of the nineteenth century. I gather from the Michener Art Museum’s website that it has a much larger collection than it presently has room to display. For now, this is a small museum.


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