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Walter Emerson Baum, Pennsylvania Artist, 1884-1956

By Martha Hutson-Saxton

 



 

Traveling north from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's rich farmlands unfold between valleys and rolling hills, restful and secure in their abundance. Roads wind through each village, gradually revealing stone chimneys and church steeples. This is the visual heritage of the Pennsylvania-Germans who settled the area in the eighteenth century and the visual splendor documented by native landscape artist, Walter Baum. Born on December 14, 1884 in the small village of Sellersville, approximately fifty miles north of Philadelphia, Baum grew up without electricity or automobiles. As industrial advances altered the appearance and economy of his region, Walter Baum worked to secure and strengthen its cultural identity.

Even with the sweeping changes of the early twentieth-century, Sellerville's growth was slow, maintaining the character of its Protestant German origins. Within the practical constraints of his upbringing, Baum's early artistic leanings were not encouraged. His travels to Philadelphia museums and visits to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts introduced him to contemporary art and to the artist, William T. Trego (1859-1909).

Trego was famed for large historical canvases of charging cavalry and soldiers. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy with Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz and spent three years in Paris at the Academe Julian where he would have been exposed to the teaching of Fleruy and Bouguereau. Baum probably met the artist in 1903 after Trego moved to North Wales, a community 15 miles south of Sellersville. Baum and his wife, Flora, studied painting under Trego for the next six years. While Flora eventually surrendered her own artistic aspirations to the demands of marriage and motherhood, Baum drew considerably from Trego's tutelage.

Baum attended the Academy from October 1905 through May 1906. Students there still followed the time-honored tradition of learning from the careful study of antique casts and drawing from models in the studio. Instruction was provided in drawing, painting, and modeling from the figure and still life, as well as courses in composition, illustration, perspective, and anatomy, but not landscape. The most important instructors during Baum's school year were Thomas Anshutz, Hugh H. Breckenridge, William M. Chase, and Cecilia Beaux. Anshutz and Breckenridge worked with the somber palettes and smooth brushwork typical of the nineteenth century studios. They continued to exhibit detailed, realistic portraits and theme compositions that had been prevalent at the Academy for decades. Chase and Beaux, however, embraced the ideals of Impressionism, an important stylistic influence at the school, growing more popular among artists and the public.

Critics initially resisted the impressionistic style, with its brighter colors, open brushwork and undemanding subject matter, but public interest forced them to accept the new movement. Between 1892 and 1905, public attendance at the Academy's yearly exhibitions rose by more than forty thousand. A 1906 exhibition reviewer praised "American impressionist landscape paintings for their national character."[1] Impressionism and landscape painting would come to dominate Academy teachings and shows for the next thirty years.

Although Robert Henri, a former student of Thomas Anshutz, was not a teacher at the Academy in 1906, his ideals had far-reaching effects on the region's art. Henri, who maintained a Philadelphia studio in the 1890s, promoted modern subject matter and the concept of "American Spirit." Young artists were drawn to the idea, capturing the unique splendors of America's native countryside as well as the unattractive nature of her newly industrialized cities.

 


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