Hidden treasures

A well-documented but little-known artist is being featured at the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill. It is the American impressionist Martha Walter, one of the many painters to come out of the turn-of-the-century Philadelphia art world.

She made all the right moves at all the right times, but she was a woman in a man’s world, and she probably lived too long — since one of the perversities of the art world is that dead artists fetch more attention than live ones.

"Impressionist Jewels: The Paintings of Martha Walter" runs through Nov. 17 at the Woodmere and continues after that at Jim’s Antiques Fine Art Gallery in Lambertville, N.J., from Nov. 22 through Jan. 31. This rare collaboration between nonprofit museum and gallery seems to have produced a win-win situation for the artist and the public. Jim Alterman not only loaned many Walters to the show but also underwrote a comprehensive and elegant catalog. Clearly, such visibility can do wonders for an artist’s going rates, and clearly, this very public display of Walter’s works is doing wonders for her reputation.

Walter may also have been the victim of a public with a narrow attention span. She was in her prime at the same time as Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux, but never attained the acclaim they enjoyed. That can hardly have been her fault, as this exhibition shows her sense of color rivals Beaux’s and her ability to capture domestic scenes as well as exotic locales equals Cassatt’s. Like most Pennsylvania impressionists, who were centered around New Hope, Walter was admired by her contemporaries, but her long life (she lived to be 101) lacked the skills of self-promotion.

Walter was born in Philadelphia on St. Patrick’s Day 1875 and, during her prime, was one of the region’s best-known artists. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with William Merritt Chase. At the Academy, she won numerous awards, including the two-year Cresson Scholarship, which allowed her to travel to Europe to study at the Academie Grande Chaumiere and the Academie Julian in Paris. Walter established herself in a studio in the Rue De Bagneaus. During this time, she also traveled in Spain, Italy, Germany and Holland.

With the beginning of World War I, Walter returned to the United States and began a series of works based on beach scenes. She would become known for her scenes of Atlantic City beaches and Coney Island. Walter then moved to Gloucester, Mass., where she joined a number of other artists engaged in the interplay of light and color. She exhibited at the annual Pennsylvania Academy show and also with the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Her work is in the collections of the Academy, the Norfolk Society of Artists, the Milwaukee Art Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Luxembourg Museum in Paris.

The current exhibition, according to Woodmere, is the largest ever of Walter’s work and takes in the entire range of her subjects: "the lives of Breton peasants in France and of fellahs of North Africa, the light-hearted pleasures of outings in the parks of Paris and Philadelphia or at the beaches of New England and New Jersey, her charming portraits, and an ambitious series devoted to the experience of immigrants at Ellis Island."

The comprehensive catalog that accompanies the show contains an essay by William Gerdts, art historian from the City University of New York, who has studied Walter and a group with which she associated and traveled. Alice Schille, a teacher and an artist, would travel in the summers with Walter to foreign shores for inspiration. The sketches would then be turned into finished paintings during the winters. Gerdts notes that in 1917-18, Walter exhibited in a show called "An Exhibition of Paintings by Six American Women" which was designed to display achievements of two generations of female artists. It circulated to a number of museums throughout the country.

According to Gerdts, not much is known about Walter’s family. She apparently had two sisters with whom she lived in later life. She went to Girls High School in Philadelphia and her later years were spent in Melrose Park, living with at least one of her sisters. There is an understandable thirst to know more about Walter, even though the Woodmere show clearly demonstrates her talent. She was talented, well educated and traveled, knew of all major art developments in her day and yet, despite widespread fame in the early 20th century, she somehow slipped away from the canon.

Much of the tone of the exhibition and the writings about it seem to suggest her gender is not unrelated to her fall from fame. It’s hard to think of a similarly talented and acclaimed male artist who was accorded the same fate.

Impressionist Jewels: The Paintings of Martha Walter
Through Nov. 17
Woodmere Art Museum
9201 Germantown Ave.
Admission: $5 adults, $3 seniors and students, free for children under 12. Closed Mondays.
Nov. 22-Jan. 31
Jim’s Antiques Fine Art Gallery
Lambertville, N.J.