Catalog Essay | October 24, 2019 | Lot 35
Theresa Bernstein’s artistic career lasted over 90 years and spanned the twentieth century. She was a painter, printmaker, teacher, poet, storyteller and art activist. Loosely associated with the Ashcan School, Bernstein’s subjects included modern scenes of urban life and popular culture. She painted in an expressive colorful style in New York City and during the summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Bernstein was born in Krakow, Poland in 1890. She and her parents emigrated to the United States, settling first in Philadelphia. She attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art and Design) where her teachers included Harriet Sartain, Elliott Daingerfield, Henry Snell, Daniel Garber and Samuel Murray. In 1912, she moved to New York City to attend the Art Students League. There she studied under and befriended William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and later John Sloan, Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper.
Bernstein arrived in New York City at a time when there were competing definitions of Modernism, the New York Realists and the Abstractionists. Bernstein was primarily a Realist painter, embracing the alternative definition of Modernism. Although her works were figurative, they were highly expressive and filled with color. Bernstein was exposed to all of the Modern art movements going on around her. She visited the 1913 Armory Show, although she famously claims to have seen neither nude nor staircase in Duchamp’s infamous painting. In 1912 and again in 1923 she travelled to Europe where she saw works by Kandinsky, Marc and Munch. In 1913, she made a breakthrough when one of her paintings was chosen for the annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design. In 1919, she had a major show at the Milch Gallery.
The first few decades of the 1900s were Bernstein’s most realist period. She painted street scenes, tenement houses and, as in the present example, a kindergarten class. Her works from the teens and twenties are considered among her best and were the subject of a 1991 exhibition Echoes of New York: The Paintings of Theresa Bernstein. The Kindergarten was included in the exhibition because it shows her sensitivity in capturing her subject matter. She often painted women and children, and as is apparent in her study drawings (figs. 1 and 2), she was adept at capturing the moment through expression and gesture. In 1919, she married Russian émigré artist William Meyerowitz. The couple moved near Times Square and Central Park, placing Bernstein in the heart of city life. She painted parades, parks, trolleys and concerts. She would venture to Coney Island and in the summers, the couple would spend their time in Gloucester, Massachusetts. There she painted beaches and harbor scenes.
Of her Gloucester paintings, Patricia M. Burnham, noted Bernstein scholar writes, “The subject that seemed to liberate Bernstein’s brush and color was the beach—Coney Island at first, Gloucester later. True to her temperament, she was attracted to human activity at the sea shore than to the sea itself.”1 Her beach scenes, as in lots 36, 246 and 247, are animated, filled with color bustling with activity. Although her work in achieved critical success throughout the 1920s, in the 1930s it became difficult for her to sustain her reputation. As a woman artist, she was often overlooked or disregarded. She was champion of her husband Meyerowitz, often promoting his work above her own. Although the history of art closes the chapter on New York Realism in 1913, Bernstein is one of the notable painters who kept the style alive. She died in 2002, a few weeks shy of her 112th birthday.
1 Patricia M. Burnham, “Theresa Bernstein,” Woman’s Art Journal (Fall 1988 / Winter 1989).
Images on this page: Bernstein, Theresa. The Sketchbook. Rockland, Massachusetts: Theresa Bernstein, 1992, pp. 21, 24.