Aside from the surprising change in her painting style and her death at age 111, the most shocking aspect of Theresa Bernstein is that she painted from a hidden place.
The fact that the artist was born in Poland, but insisted on being solely American, comes to light more than once throughout an exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art that celebrates her long artistic career. Another fact is that every decade of the 20th century saw her work.
Seeking to stretch that timeline and strengthen recognition, Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art brings together about 40 paintings highlighting this artist’s skill and the historic events she was known to capture. A contemporary of Georgia O’Keeffe, Bernstein (1890-2002) has yet to gain the same superstar status.
The exhibition, on view through Jan. 11 in the first floor, is not organized chronologically, although a cluster of emotional pieces appears to the left, past its entrance. They include a self-portrait, the artist’s husband and a painful chapter in her life.
Bernstein portrays herself with rosy cheeks, wearing a white rope and holding a small brush in a self-portrait that clearly speaks to her sense of identity. She considered herself a serious painter. Her confidence emanates from her peaceful gaze. In this quiet, humble setting, the artist is perfectly content with herself even when not everything is orderly and perfect. The still-life arrangement consisting of fruits, flowers and a white cloth is all over the place. Lines showing where her left hand fingers were originally conceived are left visible.
The piece’s muddy quality, unfinished appearance and thin paint application is seen several times in the show. Look for it in The Chess Players (1926), where a domestic scene of leisure at her Gloucester summer home receives barely any paint and a minimal palette.
Next to the self-portrait is an earlier work featuring William Meyerowitz, Bernstein’s husband of 62 years and one of her favorite subjects. Portrait of William (1923) presents him in a sitting pose and holding an etching plate to convey his profession as an artist. More tools of his labor are left on display to the right. Although he appears frozen for the moment, his dirty clothes and fingers suggest it has been an engaging, productive day. William specialized in printmaking etchings.
Loss (1920) is perhaps the first work here to alert us that Bernstein could depart from calm settings and realism to embrace expressionism. It illustrates how the artist handled grief. With its raw, chaotic and fleshy quality, she conveys the pain and anger of losing a child. The couple’s daughter, Isadora, died of pneumonia 14 weeks after being born.
The piece features the angel of death in a black cloak and hood and a white angel symbolizing the lost child. It is very flat, as other works here, but much more aggressive, alive. The oversized cup with three fruits placed at the center of the canvas seems to float in the air as a thorny, root-like presence spreads over the table cloth. It looks like a creature has been set loose.
Other pieces like Music Lover (1913) and The Cone Sisters (1930) take us away from the artist’s heart and closer to another of her favorite subjects: random people. Granted, Etta and Claribel Cone were patrons of the Baltimore Museum where Bernstein and her husband exhibited. They were not total strangers. Here, the artist manages to paint a similarity that suggests the two women are related even before we reach to read the title. Both wear a white outfit with long sleeves and few colorful accents. She also gives us a hint of their personality. One listens attentively while the other one speaks.
The elegant woman standing behind a chair in Music Lover was a total stranger, thus the ideal model. Bernstein apparently preferred to capture people while they were unaware. She also was known for her dark and somber depictions of social issues such as immigration, unemployment, racism, and war. Some of these themes are represented here, as is her love for music and opera.
Her 1923 oil painting The Immigrants conveys the feelings of uncertainty and compassion experienced by the figures aboard a ship arriving in New York City. Mothers are seen holding infants while older children stretch their arms to be held by their parents. During this time, the American government had begun to implement laws to control immigration. Bernstein’s take on it suggests she sympathized with the foreigners even if she admitted her foreign birth only on her marriage certificate.
The big surprise in the room comes with three bold, colorful pieces produced later in life and influenced by her discovery of jazz. We know we have arrived because the works feel out of place, as if they do not belong. They are wilder and freer than anything else in the room. Thick layers of paint feed her gestural strokes to give form to musicians and dancers. Among them are Cab Calloway-Minnie the Moocher (1935) and Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong (1927).
For a female artist and immigrant, Bernstein did great. She exhibited along Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, and John Sloan and avoided the treatment her fellow immigrants got. At one point, the artist enjoyed greater fame than Hopper, according to Gail Levin, guest curator and distinguished professor at Baruch College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.
Higher recognition might be just a matter of time. What is one more year or two, to an artist who already tasted fame once while being alive? How many painters can claim that?
Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art runs through Jan. 11 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday except for Thursday, when it is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $12; seniors pay $10. Call 561-392-2500 or visit www.bocamuseum.org.