1 Painting in Collection
(1890-2002) Poland / United States
Works in Selected Public Collections
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; The Jewish Museum, NY, NY; National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY; Boca Raton Museum of Art, FL; New York Public Library, NY; Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, PA; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH; Dallas Museum of Art, TX; De Young Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, CA; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX; Museum of the City of New York, NY
Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art, a retrospective curated by Gail Levin, James Gallery, Graduate Center, City University of New York, 2013
Theresa Bernstein: An Early Modernist, Joan Whalen Fine Art, New York, NY, 2000
Theresa Bernstein: A Seventy-Year Retrospective, Joan Whalen Fine Art, New York, NY 1998
Echoes of New York: The Paintings of Theresa Bernstein, curated by Michele Cohen, Museum of the City of New York, 1990-1991
Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art, Edited by Gail Levin, University of Nebraska Press, 2013
Theresa Bernstein website by Gail Levin, The Graduate Center, City University of New York: https://theresabernstein.newmedialab.cuny.edu/
Born 1890 Krakow (Poland)
Died 2002 New York, NY
Theresa Bernstein was a painter who was widely exhibited and celebrated during the early years of her career but whose commitment to figuration and lack of art world promotion slowed long term recognition. Initially an urban realist painter who was linked to the Ashcan School, Bernstein moved to an expressionistic approach which she used to chronicle the stories of her long life from women’s suffrage to jazz greats to the working class people of New York to the social uprising of the 1960s.
Born in Krakow, Poland she was the only child of a Jewish textile manufacturer and an accomplished pianist. Shortly after Theresa was born the family emigrated to the U.S. settling in Philadelphia where Bernstein was raised. Her formal art education took place at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design). Following her graduation in 1911 she moved to New York and continued her studies at the Art Students League, taking classes from the influential educator William Merritt Chase who played a significant role in shaping American modernism. In addition to Bernstein, his students included Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe all of whom gleaned guidance from his knowledge of Impressionism as well as his expressive, realist approach to portraiture and still life.
Bernstein also knew and admired the work of Robert Henri who advocated for a kind of realism that addressed the current moment, ushering in an approach to content that captured the rawness, activities and energy of urban America. The Ash Can School, as the group came to be known, rejected Impressionism as an art of surfaces and instead pursued subjects that spoke to daily life experience. Like the Ash Can group, Bernstein took her subjects from the world around her including transit riders, waiting areas, parade spectators and beach scenes as well as political subjects such as suffragettes and acts of racial injustice. Her scenes of people at work and at play often feature cross-class encounters or moments of quiet reflection.
Coming of age at a time when many were beginning to explore some form of abstraction, Bernstein never abandoned the figure, and remained committed to interpreting scenes from contemporary life. Less realistic than her peer Edward Hopper, Bernstein’s works tended to be more expressionistic with lively brushstrokes, strong colors and quick mark making. Sunflowers (1927), which is included in the Wolfson collection, shows Bernstein’s tendency toward gestural brushstrokes and bold colors. The sunflowers take center stage in a domestic landscape where Bernstein accentuates the large summer blooms. The surrounding green grass and lush trees convey the verve and energy of summertime. The building and person in center right are barely discernable and only articulated through a few brushstrokes.
In 1919 Bernstein had her first solo exhibition at Milch Gallery in New York. That same year she married William Meyerowitz who was also an artist. The couple lived in Manhattan and spent their summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They presented themselves as a painting couple although Bernstein initially received more attention and better reviews. As backhanded as the compliments were, the critics recognized her talents. “There is nothing feminine about the paintings of Theresa Bernstein,” wrote a critic in the New York Herald in 1919. “It is with a man’s vision that this artist looks at her subjects in the streets, the elevated railroad trains, at the beaches … Then, having found what she wants, it is with a man’s vigor that she gets it down to stay.” As a serious artist who was also a woman and Jewish, Bernstein was aware of the barriers she faced. To avoid being dismissed because of her gender she often chose to sign her paintings T. Bernstein.
Around 1920 Bernstein became part of the Philadelphia Ten, a group of women painters and sculptors who had been trained in art academies in and around Philadelphia. The Ten exhibited together for over thirty years. Many of the artists actively sold from these exhibitions but few of them, including Bernstein, ever benefitted from formal gallery affiliation that would have meant regular exhibitions and more cultivated patrons.
Navigating a place for herself and her artwork was not easy and when asked later in her life Bernstein admitted that she primarily promoted her husband’s work and chose quite consciously not to compete with him. Gail Levin, the curator of Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art (2013) noted that when people came to see the two artists, Meyerowitz would often not let them visit his wife’s studio. The couple was engaged politically and became deeply involved in the Zionist movement. Over the course of thirty years they visited Israel thirteen times. In addition to painting, Bernstein authored several books, including a biography of her husband and a journal about their many trips to Israel.
“A woman painter who paints like a man,” in the words of a critic in International Studio, Theresa Bernstein defied expectations and impressed the critics. Painting was her passion and while she had a solo exhibition every decade of her long life, her gender restricted access to the institutions that were necessary to be successful in the long term. It wasn’t until after Meyerowitz’s death in 1981 that friends realized the full scope of her oeuvre, locating hundreds of paintings that she had produced but rarely exhibited.
As a young urban realist Bernstein was better known than her peer Edward Hopper but her refusal to embrace the trend towards abstraction and her choice to promote her husband’s work over her own took its toll on her reputation. In 1930 the Baltimore Museum of Art held solo exhibitions for both Bernstein and Meyerowitz. That is the last major museum exhibition of record for Bernstein until 60 years later when, after Meyerowitz’s death, Bernstein went to the Museum of the City of New York to discuss an exhibition of his work, but seeing hers, they offered an exhibition to her instead. Bernstein was 100 years old when that exhibition occurred. During the exhibition she met with students and reporters and shared her perspective on being underappreciated: “I never got frustrated, because I didn’t expect anything.” Realistic and determined to the end of her long life, Bernstein simply persisted. At one point in her last decades, she broke her right hand so painted with her left until the right hand healed. Theresa Bernstein died in her rent controlled apartment in New York city just a few days shy of 112. Today her art is included in public collections throughout the United States.