Though it shouldn’t be, initially the most striking piece of information about the little known American artist Theresa Bernstein is that she was two weeks shy of her 112th birthday when she died in 2002.
According to art historian Gail Levin, Bernstein kept working even after she turned 100. Levin, who has a house in Bridgehampton, is the editor of a handsome new book, Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art (University of Nebraska). It consists of essays and illustrations that celebrate the decades during which Bernstein painted and exhibited, and it has been released in conjunction with two exhibits of Bernstein’s work. This talented and quietly persistent realistic painter and printmaker was eclipsed inadvertently by her loving and supportive artist husband William Meyerowitz (1887-1981), whom she married in 1919, and by the times in which she lived. Galleries and museums, during her career, typically regarded women artists as less important than men. Indeed, when Levin came across Bernstein, as part of her research on Edward Hopper it was by way of an exhibit in 1983 at The New York Historical Society, “Themes of New York: Paintings and Prints by William Meyerowitz and Theresa Bernstein.” Note the date and note the order of the names.
The art world, with few exceptions, was a man’s world. Georgia O’Keeffe, who was three years older than Bernstein, she had the advantage of being married to Alfred Stieglitz who tirelessly promoted O’Keeffe’s work. Bernstein was also Louise Nevelson’s first teacher, but didn’t trumpet the fact. Factor in, also, that Bernstein was Jewish and 50 years old when the Nazi juggernaut unleashed the Holocaust, not the best time to be promoted. Her portraits of Einstein, however, done in 1921 on his first trip to America, and her paintings on Jewish themes, are admirable.
Though she rarely acknowledged she had been born in Cracow (she came to America when she was a child), Bernstein was nonetheless unwaveringly supportive of Zionism and had life-long leftist sympathies, probably not the best recommendations during the McCarthy years. Ironically, though she was admired by John Sloan, Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper, among others and garnered numerous awards, admiring critics tended to describe her style as full of “masculine vision and vigor” while still referencing her as a woman artist. By mid-century she was pretty much ignored.
No abstractionist, Bernstein did loosen up her style in later decades in the direction of a theatrical impressionism and non-abstract expressionism, though some critics said they preferred her earlier, more traditional work. Raised in Philadelphia, she came to New York where the action was and in 1911 studied with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League (he said she reminded him of Frans Hals). Though it seems as though she never could win, her written comments, simple and direct, seen in excerpts here from journals, sketchbooks and unpublished manuscripts, are remarkable for their self-effacement: “I never got frustrated because I didn’t expect anything. I enjoyed painting the works I did. I didn’t do it for public acclaim.”
In an extensive introduction, “Forgotten Fame: Inscribing Theresa Bernstein Into History,” Levin lays out in unadorned prose the narrative of Bernstein’s life, though it’s clear she intends to correct the record. For New Yorkers, that record is particularly important and the cover piece shows why. In rich dark tones, “The Readers” (1914), a 40” x 50” oil on canvas showing figures in the reading room at The New York Public Library, exemplifies Bernstein’s love affair with the city, especially its music scene, both classical and jazz. Levin intelligently lays out paintings, sketches, etchings and photographs in a way that enhances appreciation of Bernstein’s range and style. Though at times a bit self-referential, the author generously thanks her students and proudly includes essays by six of them: Elsie Heung (The Ashcan School?), Michele Cohen (Theresa Bernstein in Gloucester), Sarah Archino (Theresa Bernstein and World War I in New York and Dada’s Long Shadow), Patricia M. Burnham (Theresa Bernstein’s World in Still Life), Gillian Pistell (Theresa Bernstein’s Documentary Still) and Stephanie Hackett (Theresa Bernstein as Printmaker).
“Theresa Bernstein: A Century of Art” is at The James Gallery of the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, through January 18, 2014.