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"It is the human side that interests me... a landscape without a building or a figure is a very lonely picture to me. I love the cities, the towns-the crowds... It is a curious contradiction that I live in the country."
Robert Spencer gazed at rustic Bucks County with a city man's eye, seeking out laborers and factories to enliven his landscapes. Spencer cultivated his interest in urban subjects through his association with New York-based painters such as Robert Henri. He developed his style, however, under the tutelage of the Pennsylvania Impressionists Daniel Garber and William L. Lathrop. Compared to Garber, Spencer favored a more somber tone and bolder patterning. He often employed ranges of warm and cold grays, while blending violets, blues, and reds to create subtle harmonies of color. Like Garber, Spencer was interested in figurative painting, although typically the people he depicted were anonymous members of a crowd rather than familiar individuals. Toward the end of his life, Spencer experimented with a looser, more spontaneous style somewhat akin to modernist ideas. A profoundly troubled man with an unhappy marriage, Spencer suffered several nervous breakdowns before committing suicide in 1931, at the age of fifty-one.
Education and Training
National Academy of Design, New York, New York, 1899-1901
New York School of Art, New York, New York, 1903-1905
Teachers and Influences
Francis Coates Jones, Edwin Howland Blashfield, Robert Blum, George W. Maynard, James Smillie, Edgar Melville Ward, Frederick Dielman, and Jonathan Scott Hartley at the National Academy of Design
Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase from the New York School of Art
Studied with Daniel Garber in New Hope
Other influences were literary figures, such as Dickens, and the historic painters Goya and Daumier
Connection to Bucks County
Robert Spencer moved to Bucks County in 1906. During the summer of 1909, he studied with Daniel Garber, one year his junior, in Garber's Cuttalossa home. Afterwards, Spencer lived with another young artist, Charles Frederic Ramsey, in New Hope's Huffnagle Mansion. In 1914, Spencer married the architect and painter Margaret Fulton. The couple built a home called Willow Brook Farm at Rabbit Run Bridge in New Hope. Spencer enjoyed close collegial relations with his fellow members of the New Hope Group, including Daniel Garber, Charles Rosen, William Lathrop, Rae Sloan Bredin, and Morgan Colt. The group exhibited together from 1916 until 1926. Although Spencer, like these artists, was intrigued by the landscape of Bucks County, he focused upon aspects of it that the others neglected, specifically the quarries, mills, and tenements.
Colleagues and Affiliations
William Lathrop and Spencer were close friends. Another close friend was Charles Rosen. Spencer gave Rosen a painting, The Gray House, as a gift. Rosen, in return, did a portrait of Spencer for Spencer to submit upon becoming an associate member of the National Academy of Design.
"A backyard may mean the fine, full naked arms of a woman washing clothes near a grey wall... It is the intimate side of life, the half dressed side, where beings are themselves. Backyards are genuine, unpretentious."
-Frederic Newlin Price
The art of Robert Spencer differs from that of his fellow Pennsylvania Impressionists in its debt to the Ash Can School, a movement initiated by Robert Henri and his followers, "The Eight," during the first decade of the twentieth century. These artists attempted to create truly American art by capturing the diversity and mundanity of modern life.
The Ash Can School influenced Spencer's treatment of landscapes, motivating him, to a greater extent than his fellow Pennsylvania Impressionists, to focus upon architecture and groups of people. Spencer's landscapes accentuate not breathtaking natural forms but, instead, the mills, tenements, and bridges flanking the Delaware River. His figurative paintings, such as his celebrated Repairing the Bridge, typically portray the lives of the working class. Such paintings are seldom portraits, as his fellow impressionist, Daniel Garber, had done, but instead are panoramic views of a crowd of laborers, which suggest the depersonalizing effect of industry upon the individual.
To a greater extent than the Ash Can painters, Spencer focused on the suffering and degradation endured by laborers, rather than on their picturesque, aesthetic qualities. Through his art, as well as through personal association, Spencer expressed his profound sympathy for the working class.
"I don't care whether the building is a factory or a mill; whether it makes automobile tires or silk shirts. It is the romantic mass of the building, its placing relative to the landscape and the life in and about it that count."
The mills of Bucks County intrigued Robert Spencer, inspiring a series of paintings during the 1910s. The artist's interest in these mills was piqued around 1910 when he moved across from the William Maris Silk Mill, which had been built in 1813. Its dilapidated condition prompted Spencer to wonder about the dismal working conditions inside.
The Maris Silk Mill, along with the Richard Heath Grist Mill, are the most common subjects of Spencer's mill paintings, which typically capture the gloomy, exhausting lives of the immigrants who labored there. Through his use of muted colors, especially dull shades of gray and brown, Spencer conveys this sense of dreariness. In one of the most famous paintings of this series, Grey Mills, Spencer depicts women and children flocking into the Maris Silk Mill to begin work. The painting's composition emphasizes the building's deterioration and bulk, showing its frayed gabled roof and massive height. The small, bent figures of the workers, in comparison, appear anonymous and oppressed.
For Spencer, the old mills appeared romantic because, built over one hundred years earlier, they represented a way of life that, in his day of rapid industrialization, was quickly becoming extinct. In spite of the paintings' bitter nostalgia, they never lapse into sentimentality. Capturing the gloom and strain of these laborers' lives, Spencer refused to idealize a subject that, however quaint, was cruel.
Teaching and Professional Appointments
Summer School Instructor, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, 1925
Highest Medal, Brussels Exposition, 1911
Honorable Mention, Art Club of Philadelphia, 1913
2nd Hallgarten Prize, National Academy of Design, 1913
Jenny Sesnan Gold Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1914
Inness Medal, National Academy of Design, 1914
Medal, Boston Art Club, 1915
Gold Medal, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915
Gold Medal, Philadelphia Sesquicentennial International Exposition, 1926
Highest Honor Award, 25th International Exposition, Carnegie Institute, 1926
Affiliations and Memberships
Member, National Academy of Design
The New Hope Group, also called The Towpath Group
Major Solo Exhibitions
Robert Spencer: Impressionist of Working Class Life, New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, New Jersey, 1983
The Cities, The Towns, The Crowds: The Paintings of Robert Spencer, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 2004
Major Group Exhibitions
Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, 1909-1931
Philadelphia Art Club, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1910
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1910-1932
Twenty-Fifth International Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1926
50th Anniversary Retrospective Art Exhibition, Phillips' Mill, New Hope, Pennsylvania, 1979
The Pennsylvania Impressionists: Painters of the New Hope School, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1990
Masterworks of American Impressionism, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1994
Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism and Its Response in Pennsylvania Painting 1900-1950, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA, 2007
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware
Detroit Institute of the Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
New Hope-Solebury Bank (presently PNC Bank), New Hope, Pennsylvania
Widener University, Chester, Pennsylvania