Editor's note: The following essay was published April 15, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the James A. Michener Art Museum. The essay accompanys the exhibit Katharine Steele Renninger: Craft, Commitment, Community on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum from March 26, 2016 through June 12, 2016. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or accompanying texts, please contact the James A. Michener Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Katharine Steele Renninger: Craft, Commitment, Community

By Liz K. Sheehan

 

Place is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person's life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place . . . is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there.
 
- Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local
 
I suspect no landscape, vernacular or otherwise, can be comprehended unless we perceive it as an organization of space; unless we ask ourselves who owns or uses the spaces, how they were created and how they change.
 
- John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape
 
The problem of the artist is timeless. It is for him to find his relation to the world he lives in and to strive to find expression of that relationship as a means of communication with others.
 
- Charles Sheeler, "The Problem of the Artist"

 

In her 1997 work The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, cultural critic Lucy Lippard weaves together personal memoir with American history and geography studies to examine the ways in which we establish, and communicate, individual notions of home. "The intersections of nature, culture, history, and ideology form the ground on which we stand -- our land, our place, the local. The lure of the local is the pull of place that operates on each of us, exposing our politics and our spiritual legacies."[1] Over the course of her fifty-year career, painter Katharine Steele Renninger (1925-2004) helped to define the image and ideal of Bucks County. Through her meticulously crafted casein paintings of antique structures and objects, and her unwavering dedication to her community, she worked to preserve the material culture and history of the area and to support the people who built this place: her local.

 

Deep Roots

Born in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, in 1925, Renninger moved with her family to a farm in Feasterville when she was twelve years old, a dream long held by her parents, who called the property "Atlasta Farm." Today a commuter suburb for nearby Trenton and Philadelphia, at that time Feasterville was, in Renninger's words, "empty, wonderful, and bucolic."[2] Family, land, and the culture of handcraft were early and profound influences. Renninger's father was an engineer, who instilled in his daughter the importance of drawing with accuracy,[3] while her maternal ancestors, Mennonites in Lancaster, built furniture and created elaborate fraktur, highly stylized, decorative documents produced by the Pennsylvania Germans.[4] She was raised with an appreciation for the art and furniture that filled their home: simple, practical, and well-loved.

Kay, as she was known, loved to draw from a young age. Two of the family's neighbors, artists Paulette van Roekens and her husband, Arthur Meltzer, stopped by the Steeles' farm one day for eggs and saw one of her drawings on the kitchen table. That chance encounter led to summer art classes, and then eventually to the Philadelphia College of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design), where the couple taught. The Meltzers were a force: accomplished artists and dedicated teachers who painted until their deaths at ninety-three and ninety-six years of age, they taught Renninger both "how to see" and how to be a professional. They also served as the model of a modern couple: van Roekens used her maiden name professionally, and they taught on separate days so they could share childrearing duties. These were the waning years of the Philadelphia Ten, a progressive group of women from Moore and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts who had had a significant local impact on the status of women artists, creating opportunities for themselves in an arena dominated by men. The doors were open for Renninger to establish her own distinct practice.

Renninger often spoke of the importance of her academic education, writing, "The rather stringent discipline offered at Moore at that time established in me a respect for craftsmanship, the need for keen, accurate observation, and the awareness of professional quality, which is ultimately necessary for any painter."[5] In the mid-1940s, Moore served as a wartime training ground for women: "In touch with the present and conscious of the ever-enlarging opportunities which are opening for trained women," the college sought "to fill the needs of the country and its industries."[6] Renninger studied figure drawing, design, and lettering, among the standard courses, and her college sketchbooks in the Michener's collection reveal a rapid mastery of line and dimension, with a hand both controlled and fluid that reflects the college's "close association of the practical and the artistic."[7] In 1946 she graduated with a John Frederick Lewis European Traveling Fellowship, like van Roekens before her, and taught locally for a time before spending six months abroad, filling small sketchbooks with pastel landscape studies and absorbing the lessons of European modernism.

 

Early Work

Renninger's pastels from this time are vibrant and confident. Quick studies often created with blocks and planes of color, they show the strong influence of Paul Cézanne, one of her early favorites and a common foundational touchstone in academic training. Like the European masters she studied at Moore, Renninger made numerous studies of the same subject, returning to the same place many times to document shifts in light and to discover new compositions from different positions in the landscape: a method she maintained throughout her career. Two scenes of France demonstrate a range of approaches, as she experimented with perspective, technique, and levels of realism and abstraction. An untitled sketch of the Place de la Concorde (1948, fig. 1) presents a more conventional, Impressionist scene of the lampposts that line the Champs-Élysées. A sweep of road from the bottom right corner establishes a horizontal middle ground, bisected by the verticals of the streetlights and the Luxor Obelisk in the foreground on the left. Montmartre (1948) is more abstract, the streetscape rendered as a series of flat planes (fig. 2). The edges of the scene are less finished, while the center contains the action: hatches of bright colors that indicate strong sunlight fall on the upper half of a group of narrow buildings, converging at a bend in the road. A stark white, circular cloud sets off the planes of the rooftops and chimneys, echoed below by the curve of the road. Without a strong sense of perspectival depth, the image shifts toward an arrangement of geometric shapes. While much would change in Renninger's style and materials, this interest in finding moments of abstraction in realism appears throughout her mature work.

Renninger returned to Bucks County at the end of her fellowship and soon shifted away from pastels, working in a number of styles and media as she painted factories, barns, and houses in the landscape. Van Sciver Mill (c. 1950, fig. 3) shows a quarry structure rising against a bright blue sky crisscrossed with power lines, in a presentation that falls between realism and illustration. Two men working next to a small shed appear diminutive compared to the equipment behind them. In the foreground, small hills of green and gravel are sketched in with broad strokes, rising to partly obscure the machines. This was the heyday of the steel mill; Van Sciver Lake, in lower Bucks County, was at that time being dredged out of farmland by these quarry operations. On the one hand Renninger's colorful presentation of the dominant machinery could read as a celebration of progress, and on the other, its downside, as industry diminishes the landscape. The conversion of farmland to suburb had a lasting impact on Renninger's outlook and would greatly influence her future work.

After her marriage to John (Jack) Renninger, an attorney, in 1951, and following the birth of their first child, Ann, Kay gradually stopped teaching, but maintained a consistent studio practice in her home. The young family moved to Caracas, Venezuela, in 1954 for Jack's employment with the Atlantic Refining Company; during their eighteen-month stay, Kay sketched the countryside and the markets and photographed the new, modern architecture that was springing up around the historic city center. It was their return to Bucks County, however, that set the artist on the path to her mature style: she often remarked that her experience abroad made her see her home with new eyes.

 

The Lure of the Local: Observation and Change

By the mid-1950s, the wide-open landscapes and farms of Renninger's childhood were disappearing as the suburbs encroached. Her work shifted along with the times, as seen in Bisected (c. 1956, fig. 4). In this stylized blend of abstraction and realism, the diagonal braces of an electrical tower rise above a flat, patchwork landscape, slicing through a red barn and silo in the center and two loaded farm carts below. Though seemingly celebratory in its bright color, a sense of anxiety pervades?a red DANGER sign in the lower right and the literal bisection of the family farm are strong indications that Renninger was wary of the impact of industry.[8] This dichotomy, and the fractured painting surface, shows the influence of Charles Demuth, the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-born Precisionist whose work Renninger admired. Demuth's 1921 painting Modern Conveniences (fig. 5) depicts the view out the back door of Demuth's home, with a tall smokestack separating the composition to the left of center and the greenish-yellow glow of electric light showing in one window: the conveniences of his ironic title. Typical of his work, strong diagonal rays not only create a sense of progress and motion, but also divide the surface, so that the image can also be read as a flat design, with areas of abstract patterns in bricks, windows, and doors. These moments of abstraction, and the shift between two- and three-dimensional form, are common throughout Renninger's later paintings.

Renninger shared the Precisionists' eye for the industrial, and her ongoing interest in machinery led to an important turn in her oeuvre shortly after her return from Venezuela. As often happened, she stopped to admire something on the side of the road: "I saw a ditch digger; it was a marvelous piece of machinery, a series of buckets around a wheel. I had to stop and draw it and that's when I started to zero in on one thing rather than a whole bunch of things."[9] A gouache version of this drawing (fig. 6), part of the gift of the artist's estate in the James A. Michener Museum collection, shows evidence of her training in illustration and the influence of her engineer father. It is both colorful and highly detailed, accurate and stylized. There is no context given, no landscape or even a ground line to locate the machinery in space: this is a technical examination of an object that shows both her skill as a draftsman and her enthusiasm for understanding, through drawing, how things work.

Drawing was fundamental to Renninger's practice as a means of observing, understanding, and composing her subjects. Dating from her college years through the mid-1970s, the sketchbooks in the Michener Museum's collection display her growth as an artist and reveal her thought process, while also offering insight into her personality. Graphite sketches show a confident hand and the "keen, accurate observation" that she credited to her studies at Moore [10]; architectural studies and renderings of antique objects are highly detailed, both in line and in the copious notes that accompany them. Along with color specifics, she records the direction, quality, and temperature of light and shadow, as well as practical information including street addresses, collector's names, dates, and weather conditions. Within these facts are clear moments of delight: on a 1968 sketch of a home in Martha's Vineyard, a place she returned to often, she noted, "All chairs powder blue!" and "Doors avocado!" Colors were often poetically recorded -- "marvelous mustard" -- and indicated in broad blocks, as if she imagined the final painting in her mind as she sketched.

 

The Modern Vernacular

The Renningers moved to Newtown, Pennsylvania, after their return from abroad and remained there for fifty years. A great many of the artist's paintings are of the town and the surrounding area, showing details of historic homes, antique objects supplied by members of the community, and nearby farms. Morrell's Antiques Shop in particular provided Renninger with an endless supply of inspiration. The earliest of over twenty paintings made of the store, from about 1955-56, shows a frontal exterior view of the brick façade, rendered in casein on Masonite, which allowed her to capture fine details of the signage, window displays, and architectural elements (fig. 7). This work was juried into the Phillips Mill Community Association's annual show that year, where it caught the eye of New York dealer Albert Duveen on his summer vacation -- a milestone event in her career, she recalled later.[11] Although her affiliation with the Graham-Duveen Gallery did not last long, the exposure and the dealer's advice, found in one of Renninger's sketchbooks, proved invaluable:

Mr. Duveen says not to paint too "tea-shoppy"
 
Kinship with Sheeler and Wyeth
 
Paint one subject bigger, expand size of objects
 
Have less in painting
 
Color rather dull and gray
 
Wants translations, realism, not illustrations, hates storytelling paintings.[12]

Duveen's pointers about craftsmanship and style steered Renninger toward her mature work, which was characterized by cropped compositions of objects and architectural details rendered in a muted palette of casein, a milk-based paint that she revered for its dry consistency and meticulous application. She made her own canvases by mounting sanded linen on Masonite, and had the finished paintings framed by Palmer Sharpless, the woodworking instructor at Newtown's George School, in a simple walnut with a white-painted pine accent. Renninger used this presentation for the rest of her career, believing that establishing a recognizable style was every artist's goal. [13]

A much later painting of Morrell's, for example, Morrell's Spinning Wheel and Wool Winder (1988, plate 1) shows the contents of the crowded display window layered with the reflection of a group of buildings across the street. Renninger anchors this busy composition with the large circle of the wheel and the square formed by the strands of wool on the winder, backed by repeating and layered grids of windows. Beneath this subtle palette and more traditional subject matter is a definite awareness of modern ideas about painting. Her schooling had "ended at Cézanne,"[14] she had said, so she educated herself through books and museum visits, and absorbed and used early modern conventions. Time and again in her work subjects are cropped to the point of abstraction, architectural elements are treated as repeating patterns, and a grid is used to organize the composition and to remind us that the canvas can be both a surface to look at and an illusion to look through. Although her representational style went against the grain of the critically successful painters of the time, and she professed not to care for most contemporary art, Renninger did admire a select group of painters for their handling of color and skill in drawing, among them Rene Magritte, Charles Sheeler, Edward Hopper, and Charles Demuth.

Duveen recognized Renninger's affinity for Precisionism, a stylistic approach that blended the fractured surfaces of Cubism with the celebration of progress and industry characteristic of Italian Futurism. Established between the World Wars, it was quickly heralded as a uniquely American product that reflected the nation's strength and heritage in images of vernacular architecture and "indigenous themes."[15] Two of the style's major practitioners hailed from Pennsylvania, and their influence on Renninger's work was profound -- Demuth, as we have seen, and Sheeler, who visited Bucks County often to escape his native Philadelphia. Renninger's mature work shares their sense of harmony of form, foundation in drawing, and the occasionally contradictory approach described by one historian as "volume versus two-dimensional form, description versus generalization."[16] Where Renninger differed, however, was her palpable affection for her subjects?absent from her work is the cool detachment that Sheeler and Demuth presented in their hard geometries and smooth surfaces.

Vernacular architecture was a subject common to both Renninger and the Precisionists. In their work, utilitarian structures such as barns and factories represented a certain American style and work ethic, and the beauty of unadorned form. In her 1995 catalogue for Katharine Steele Renninger: A Retrospective, Michener Museum curator Patricia Sydney noted the uncanny similarities between Renninger's work Hello, Henry (1963, fig. 8) and Sheeler's painting Staircase, Doylestown (1925), one of many images he made of the interior of the Jonathan Worthington house, where he was a tenant[18]. Renninger made dozens of similar studies of staircases that combine her interest in structure with attention to geometric patterns of line and form. Steps and Pig Troughs (1997, fig. 9) is a later example, where she divides the canvas into quadrants using the vertical of a wooden support and the horizontal lines of two half-walls that form the base of the stairway. The muted palette emphasizes the deliberately framed composition, while the mottled casein surface -- the evidence of Renninger's hand -- reinforces the sense of the handmade. There are other compositional overlaps as well; one of Renninger's sketches made in the Newtown Meetinghouse (1968, fig. 10) bears a strong resemblance to Sheeler's photograph of the same subject, a Quaker meetinghouse in New York State (fig. 11). Both images are studies of geometry and light, showing views of the interior through a door that stands slightly ajar, with the pews forming rows of parallel diagonals and curves of iron hardware contrasting with simple, clean lines of paneling. Although Renninger named Sheeler as an "obvious" influence, it is unclear how much of his work she was familiar with; in a 1962 interview, she remarked that she "was sort of nuts for stairways, and nobody is doing them." [19]

Rarely did Renninger portray an entire building. Instead, she focused on the handcrafted features of historic structures that represented the character of the larger whole, and cropped her compositions to locate patterns within windows, doors, walls, and decorative trim. When she did take the long view, as in Edgecomb Boatworks (1996, fig. 12), it was in order to present architectural elements in a rhythmic repetition that she further emphasized with flat, frontal perspectives and long, narrow canvases. These were considerate choices that balanced information with invention. Bricks, boards, and other building materials create smaller units within larger blocks of color, and shadows are portrayed as clearly defined shapes. Tranter's Barn (1993, plate 2), shows a frontal view of the side of a faded yellow barn surrounded by an asphalt parking lot. Only a slice of blue sky appears to the left and above the barn wall, which fills the top three-quarters of the canvas. Below, the asphalt extends from the base of the foundation to the bottom edge of the canvas, crowding out the landscape save for a dappled shadow indicating a nearby tree. By cropping out the larger structure as well as the landscape, and flattening the perspective, the artist creates a geometric study of the building and foreground. The horizontal white lines of the parking lot, vertical boards and windows, and the diagonals of a dark shadow dissolving on the right converge in a scene that makes a subtle hint at the collapse of time: the juxtaposition of old and new.

The grace of these old barns and their simple geometries have drawn artists both modern and traditional to Bucks County for generations, and Renninger's images naturally invite a number of art historical comparisons. Where the Pennsylvania Impressionists situated these buildings in the landscape as but one element of a bucolic scene, the modernists who came through the "genius belt" -- the art colonies along the Delaware River -- saw barns as compositions unto themselves. As Sheeler noted, "Their construction anticipated by a considerable time the interest of the contemporary artist in the relation of contrasting surfaces as an important contribution to the design of a picture" [20](fig. 13). As designs that considered surface, structure, and composition, there are no figures present in Renninger's exteriors, nor do these flattened exteriors invite entry. With the front façade up against the picture plane, as in her painting of Pop Styer's Carriage Barn (2000, fig. 14) or Sturple Mill Road (2003, fig. 15), there is no recession of depth that would allow us to imagine ourselves entering. Art historian Karen Lucic calls this denial "threshold anxiety," and notes that it is characteristic of many of Sheeler's images of Doylestown architecture.[21] Instead, we focus on surfaces: the textures and signs of age, the quiet repetition of vertical clapboards braced by long horizontal hinges, the contrasts in building materials. These long, horizontal compositions devoid of human figures have also garnered comparisons with Edward Hopper, particularly his well-known 1930 work Early Sunday Morning (fig. 16), which shows a row of shops along New York's Seventh Avenue in a similar presentation. Across a cropped and flattened brick façade, strong raking light emphasizes a series of windows with drawn shades, with only a stripe of blue sky above. Renninger did admire the quality of Hopper's light and shadow, and her work shares a similar attention to the physical presence of light, but there is no overt psychological element to her work?her spaces are not charged or lonely, just waiting. As she explained, "An empty building gives the viewer more possibilities for imagination." [22]

 

Signs and Reflections

Likewise, Renninger's images of windows tend to show reflections of the outside, not domestic scenes within. The artist delighted in the challenge of painting windows, with their contrast of materials and surfaces both transparent and reflective. In Congress Hall (1965, fig. 17), she crops out all but a thin margin of yellow brick wall around one tall, narrow window with louvered green shutters. With its scalloped shade offsetting the grid of panes, and the balance of muted colors with black and white elements, Renninger creates a stately synecdoche of this historic Cape May hotel. Two Wheeler (1964, plate 3) is a symmetrical view of a trinity of tall, arched gable windows below gingerbread trim. Cut in a pattern of six-pointed stars within circles (the "two wheels" of the title), the trim and its shadow are perfectly aligned, repeating the scrolled effect that contrasts with the horizontal clapboards and truncated diagonals of the roofline. This work also points to two other favorite subjects of Renninger's: intricate cast shadows (figs. 18, 19) and Victoriana.

Where Renninger used small windowpanes to create rhythm, large plate glass windows offered complex, layered compositions. "The trick to painting glass," she told a former student, "is not to paint it."[23] Examples of this interest abound in this exhibition: Pufferbelly (2003), from a now-closed restaurant in Erie, Pennsylvania; Antiques Sign, Lititz, PA (1995, fig. 20); and Spring Service (1975). All of these paintings feature signage painted on plate glass, forming a complex layering of information that blurs the difference between inside and out, even as her lettering and line remain sharp. Their respective structures have been cropped out, even more severely than in Congress Hall, so the canvas and the window are the same dimensions. Antiques Sign shows a portion of the exterior window of the Moravian Antique Shop in Lititz, with a reflection of a brick façade punctuated by a grid of nearly twenty six-over-six double-hung windows. As the sun hits the glass, it both mirrors the view across the street and obscures the interior of the shop, doubling the reflection of the lettering on a second window behind the display. A small street sign in the lower right corner of the painting, with its reversed lettering, is our clue to the fact that we are seeing a reflection, and not a wall.

"I like to paint things through things," was Renninger's simple explanation for these complex studies.[24] Main and Orange Streets, Nantucket (1991, plate 4) is not a streetscape, as the title suggests, but an image of a window seen through scaffolding. Two cross braces divide the surface and create a shallow shadow across the window, mirroring and fracturing the image across the street. Like Antiques Sign, this image combines Renninger's interest in depicting reflection and in playing with flatness and depth. "I don't know whether I'm here or there," she remarked later about this work, echoing the disorientation that we feel in front of the canvas.[25] The lack of context can be momentarily unsettling, but by erasing the conventional foreground, middle ground, and background elements in these scenes, Renninger locates us right in her shoes.

It is tempting to consider the metaphoric possibilities of Renninger's windows, given how often they appear in her work and noting her affinity for Magritte,[26] who often used windows to examine levels of reality in painting. Her windows are almost always closed; we do not see domestic interiors, and never figures?although our noses are to the glass, we are not Peeping Toms. Renninger was above all a formalist, and she used her work to communicate her belief in value and beauty. Though free from narrative and overt metaphors, her paintings do offer more than literal reproductions; together, these fragments form a more complete picture of the places Renninger cared deeply about. As Lippard reminds us, "A painting, no matter how wonderful, is an object in itself, separate from the place it depicts. It frames and distances through the eyes of the artist...painting formalizes place into landscape."[27] Renninger bridges that distance by focusing our eye on details that might otherwise go unnoticed. Through her work, we gain a broader picture of her "local." This was her approach to the age-old "problem of the artist" according to Sheeler: finding her relation to the world she lived in and communicating that with others.[28]

 

"Rebelling against the sameness"

At first glance, Renninger's choice of subjects and their treatment -- the muted palette and careful, studied presentation -- appear sentimental, as if she were looking only to the past. Preservation and nostalgia did play a role, but her interest was more pragmatic than romantic, a position that she staunchly defended: "I have no desire to be a historical archivist or to create picture-postcard pretties." "I do not paint portraits, or pansies, or pussy cats -- just 'things.' They are exciting and interesting to me. When they are to other people too it is extremely gratifying." Above all, she was drawn to an object's inherent design and the effort it represented to make the ordinary, beautiful: "I paint things that have a sense of integrity, that were made one at a time by someone who really cared. I guess it's a rebellion against the sameness of everything around us today."

As Lucic observes, Sheeler and Demuth transformed Americana into acceptable aesthetic material with a detachment that became synonymous with modernity. "The subject entered a novel aesthetic realm that made a place for artifacts from the past while stripping them of the values they had traditionally represented." Renninger, however, valued these same subjects precisely for their connection to place and history, not apart from it. Design was paramount, but her interest was more than formal, as one early reviewer noted: "She was drawn to antiques not for their quaintness, but for their dignity of craftsmanship."With their high level of detail, Renninger's paintings of objects can be read as documents of material culture, though the codification of that academic discipline was still years away. Cold Spring Boxes (2001, plate 6), for example, is one of a group of paintings she made of vintage crate labels, those early efforts at company branding now prized for their colorful designs and hand-painted lettering. The subject is not the boxes themselves, but the design, color, and evidence of age in the worn labels; as was typical, Renninger cropped out any sense of space or perspective to focus on design. A small hangtag attached to the can on top of the stack tells us that these were likely for sale in a shop, and so their flat, frontal composition could have also resulted from a photograph of their display.

Quilts were similarly of interest to Renninger for their inherent color and pattern. Three Coverlets on a Ladder (1993, fig. 21), shows a display of nineteenth-century "figured and fancy" woven coverlets, with inscriptions and stylized floral designs that might have reminded Renninger of her family's fraktur paintings. Like Cold Spring Boxes, the presentation feels almost scientific -- head-on, without context or objective -- which focuses our attention on the details. This comes close to trompe l'oeil, as Sydney discussed in her 1995 exhibition catalogue, but Renninger's hand is always visible in the short brushstrokes and inexact outlines of the casein medium on the rough weave of her linen canvas. The eye is not fooled, rather, it marvels at both crafts on display here: painting and weaving.

 

Pride of Place

After decades of presenting temporary exhibitions around the community and advocating for a permanent home for the county's growing collection, the council secured the help of author and Doylestown native James A. Michener to establish a museum in his name that would preserve and interpret the art of the region. The council eventually disbanded to form the founding Board of Trustees, where Renninger worked tirelessly to recruit friends and collectors to serve alongside her. In 1995, the Michener Museum honored their long-serving trustee with a retrospective exhibition that caused some initial concern over conflicts of interest, as then-director Bruce Katsiff noted in the exhibition catalog. Michener himself put any doubts to rest, insisting, "We should not punish an artist for being involved in the community."

Beyond the arts, Renninger was an ardent supporter of organizations devoted to women and families, including the Bucks County Opportunity Council, the Bucks County Women's Fund, Planned Parenthood, and the Girl Scouts. Her work in this arena reflected her belief, ingrained as a student at Moore, that women should have the opportunity to work if they chose. In the early decades of her career, however, this was a curiosity: nearly all of Renninger's reviews from the 1950s and '60s focus on her appearance, her personality, and how she "overcame the obstacles of motherhood" to paint. In a 1980 essay for the New Hope Gazette, "Mothering and Parenting Are Not Easy," Renninger outlined how she was able to "do it all," in today's idealistic parlance, but expressed frustration that there was so much emphasis on the logistics:

Logistics, however, remain worth examining, as they round out the story of an artist's life, and in Renninger's case it was difficult to separate the personal and the professional. Feminist historian Griselda Pollock has dedicated her career to arguing that these "conditions of production" have had a profound effect on art made by women throughout history. The important story here is not that Renninger was able to have a career, "despite the obstacles of motherhood," as one reviewer described it, but that she found that duality unremarkable. It was clear that she felt that art was not a choice but a calling, and in her professional life and community engagement she made space for others to pursue the same path.


I'm just a feisty fighter"

Reflecting on Renninger's work today, we can appreciate it for its unique blend of local detail and broader art historical influences. Renninger's work exists at the confluence of a number of artistic directions -- the Philadelphia Ten, the Pennsylvania Impressionists, the Precisionists -- and the artist absorbed their lessons and legacies to create a language all her own. Constantly looking, discovering, and recording, Renninger painted moments that together form her particular sense of place, as defined in Lippard's Lure of the Local: "Land/town/cityscape seen from the inside, the resonance of a specific location that is known and familiar." Through her cropped and focused compositions, Renninger places us in the landscape, not apart from it, directing our attention and creating a sense of intimacy with her subjects. Her work evokes the smells and textures, the sounds of creaking boards or the feel of old wood, warm afternoon light raking across a hallway, but the inevitable undercurrent of nostalgia is tempered by her objective eye for design and pattern. Her mission was not to stop time, but to convince others of the beauty of everyday objects, their historic value, and the character in design: "I'm not a conservator, I'm just a feisty fighter. Renninger's commitment to her craft and to her community serves as a model for how an artist can create the kind of art world she wants to live in: her local.

1 Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: The New Press, 1997), 7.

2 Senior Artists Initiative video interview, 2002. http://www.seniorartists.org/krenninger.html

3 "My father was an engineer and he said, 'If you're going to draw a bridge, then that bridge better be able to carry the weight.'" In Pheralyn Dove, "Looking Back on a Career in Art." Philadelphia Inquirer, July 16, 1995.

4 Conversation with Ann Renninger, October 2015.

5. Katharine Steele Renninger, "The Watercolor Pages," American Artist, March 1977, 20­24.

6 Moore Institute of Art: Philadelphia Design School for Women catalog, 1945­46, James A. Michener Museum archive, Box 7.

7 Moore Institute of Art: Philadelphia Design School for Women catalog, 1946--47, James A. Michener Museum archive, Box 7.

8 At the time, massive electrical towers were being erected in Solebury Township, crossing what is now the Honey Hollow Watershed, through miles of farmland?a possible inspiration for this image.

9 Cindy Schwartz, "Bucks Artist Shines through with a Subtle Serenity," Bucks County Courier Times, September 23, 1986, B18.

10 Renninger, American Artist, 23.

11 Senior Arts Initiative video, 2002

12 Sketchbook, 195557, James A. Michener Museum Collection, 2008.14.242

18 Patricia Sydney, Katherine Steele Renninger: A Retrospective (Doylestown, PA: James A. Michener Art Museum, 1995).

19 E. Winfield Johnson, "Newtown Woman's Artistic Style Gives 'Character' to Bucks Barns," Trenton Evening Times, August 20, 1962.

20 Quoted in Karen Lucic, Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modern and the Pennsylvania Tradition (Allentown, PA: Allentown Art Museum, 1997), 61.

21 Ibid, 58.

22 Myra Yellin Outwater, "Bucks Artist Puts Familiar Objects in an Unusual Light," The Morning Call, Saturday, July 15, 1995, A51­52.

23 Conversation with Judith Sutton, September 2015.

24 Senior Artist Initiative video, 2002.

25 Ibid.

26 Conversation with Ann Renninger and Sally Renninger Henriques, June 2015.

27 Lippard, 20.

28 Charles Sheeler, "The Problem of the Artist," Christian Science Monitor, n.d., reprinted in Friedman, et al, Charles Sheeler (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968).


About the author

Liz K. Sheehan is an Independent Curator. Her website may be viewed here.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published April 15, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the James A. Michener Art Museum. The essay accompanys the exhibit Katharine Steele Renninger: Craft, Commitment, Community on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum from March 26, 2016 through June 12, 2016. Permissions were granted to TFAO on April 13, 2016. TFAO wishes to express appreciation to Lisa Hanover and Christine Hensel Triantos of the James A. Michener Art Museum for their help in providing permissions. Images of artworks referred to in the text as "figures" are not included.

Because of prior edits in the text and endnotes provided to TFAO, endnotes beyond 28 are not posted as of 4/15/16.

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For further biographical information on artists mentioned above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Read more information, articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index age for the Michener Art Museum in Resource Library.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc. (TFAO) neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History. This page will be amended as TFAO adds content, corrects errors and reorganizes sections for improved readability. Refreshing or reloading pages enables readers to view the latest updates.


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