Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Ben Solowey (1900-1978), painted, sculpted and created exactly as he wanted. He paid no attention to what was fashionable or lucrative at the moment, cultivated no distinguished patrons, sought little publicity and asked for no exhibitions; unsolicited, the work nevertheless came to him. Although he gained renown for his portraits of the American theater – produced in the swirl that was New York of the ’30s – his greatest work came from the unspoiled countryside of Bucks County, where he lived in relative isolation.

Artist, craftsman, but above all an individualist, short and powerful Ben Solowey was both product and reflection of his determined quest for per­fection. “I must do what I must do,” he once said, “not because it is popular or will win a prize or sell for a high price.” As a budding art stu­dent, he doggedly pursued his dream against his parents’ will. As theater portraitist for several New York newspapers, he withstood skepticism as a pioneer in tonal drawings, which he introduced to the unrefined process of newspa­per reproduction. He applied to this work, his most com­mercial assignment, the aes­thetic standards and techniques he brought to his own studio work. To the ur­ban, modern custodians of the increasingly gritty art world of New York during the thirties, the appearance of this lover of beauty and nature in their domain was considered anach­ronistic. An enigma at best. In their world of rapid change and constant reinvention, here rose a staunch classicist, a superb draftsman, a confident portraitist, an artist inured to the changing fashions of the time. As a well established artist in that cultural hub, he gave up the glamour of Fifth Avenue for the gently rolling, bucolic landscape of Bucks County, not to be a part of any “school,” but to further involve himself in the fascinating world around him.

Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1900, he spent his early years in St. Petersburg, Russia, where his father was a boot­maker in the czar’s court. The Russian Army at that time drafted young men by “sweep­ing” them off the streets with­out warning into the backs of wagons, hustling them to war. Abraham Solowey realized the danger of this impending conscription to his four sons and moved the entire family, which included his wife Celia and daughter Rose, to Phila­delphia in May 1914. With no knowledge of English, Ben was assigned to a kindergarten class upon his arrival. Modern art scholar Abraham A. David­son, in his seminal mono­graph, observed, “It is significant that even then he could put the situation in proper perspective, set his goal and proceed to achieve it, totally impervious to the ano­maly of his predicament.” Within the year he held his own with his peers.

Even at an early age Ben – much to his parents’ dismay­ – displayed a talent for drawing. His mother was surprised to see the young artist’s sketch of a nude which turned out to be his rendition of the Venus De Milo. Later it was said that Ben “could not draw,” the type of child who once sketched his ice cream cone before eating it. He soon enrolled in free courses at the Graphic Sketch Club (now the Samuel Fleisher Art Memorial) on Catherine Street in center-city Philadel­phia and at the Spring Garden Institute. He also took occa­sional work with a local lithog­rapher which would prove to be invaluable education in the art of print reproduction.

At an exhibition at the Graphic Sketch Club in 1920, Solowey’s work was singled out by Edward Redfield, dean of the Bucks County school of landscape painting, for a three year scholarship to the venera­ble Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (see “The Penn­sylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: An Ideal and Symbol” by Jeanette M. Toohey in the spring 1988 edition of Pennsyl­vania Heritage). For incoming students it was de riguer to spend their first year executing charcoal studies of sculpture casts from the Academy’s vast collection. So rapidly did he excel that Solowey was quickly advanced to the life class where students worked from live models. In 1921, his char­coal study of the school’s cleaning woman was awarded the Ramborger Prize for best drawing and for “pure origi­nality of composition.”

For young American art students at the time, study abroad was essential; London and Paris for the galleries and Europe’s landscape and archi­tecture for their wealth of inspiration. Upon completion of his Academy studies in 1924, Ben set sail across the Atlantic on the cruise ship S.S. Leviathan as a steward to subsi­dize his passage. On arrival he met some friends from the Academy and walked in the steps of the masters. The influences of French painters such as Delacroix, Courbet and Cezanne were profound to the young artist who felt they “had injected fresh air into painting.” It was at that time Solowey’s work matured from literal representation of his subject to an evocative intellec­tual summation.

After six months filled with numerous revelations about his artwork, it mattered little that his return passage was delayed by two weeks due to ship repairs, but on his return he learned that his mother had died during that time. Two years later his father was struck by a trolley car on his way to Friday night services, but because he was Jewish, he was refused admittance to a nearby hospital and before he could be rushed to another, he died. This accident and an­other death were the catalysts behind legislation that re­quired hospitals receiving state aid to take all emergency cases.

Fully independent, Solo­wey set up a studio on Delan­cey Street in Philadelphia where he worked as a decora­tive painter, mainly supplying canvases in the style of seven­teenth century Dutch Master still-lifes for interior decorators and furniture stores. In his spare time he concentrated on portraits, inspired by John Singer Sargent, and Sargent’s hero, Velazquez. Ben es­chewed normal furnishings as background for his portraits, preferring to place his subject in a rich envelope of color. Much like Robert Henri and Thomas Eakins before him, he believed that the elements of composition were contained in the personality and grace of the sitter. Ben once said “eve­rybody carries their personal­ity on their face. If I get what I see and put it down truthfully and honestly … the personality will be on the canvas. There’s no trick to it.” Believing “there’s something interesting in every head if you light it properly,” his technique was to suit lighting, posture and approach to each sitter. He felt men allowed a more loose, rugged style of painting, while women required a more sensi­tive touch because of their subtle features, as well as their own expectations. Early por­traits, particularly Girl with the Red Bow (1927), evoke a feeling of melancholy through a com­bination of these techniques, prompting Davidson to re­mark that, “despite the frilli­ness of her dress, the gaiety of her bow, her expression is one of sullenness and resignation; she seems to be deliberately avoiding confrontation with the viewer.” The feeling is reinforced by the brooding color of the background.

Although his decorative paintings were strong in their own right, Solowey chafed at the overt commercialism of the work. “I find where the artist is given real freedom of expres­sion,” he would later say, “the result has greater artistic merit­… but the artist is ‘people’ and he must eat, hence a paycheck can’t be ignored.” Often work­ing from black and white re­productions he had acquired in Europe, Solowey’s deep knowledge of the Old Masters would allow him to extrapolate the necessary colors for his decorative work. He took their sense of composition and intention and applied it to his own still lifes and landscape paintings. He continued to exhibit and win awards for it in Philadelphia.

In 1928, Ben Solowey de­cided to seek his future in New York City. Selling everything he could not carry, he rented a studio in New York with his long time friend and fellow artist, William Schulhoff. By the end of the year, Ben had a charcoal drawing reproduced in the New York Times for the Old Couples Fund, a charity for the elderly. Around the same time he produced a dra­matic pastel portrait of Russian born actress Olga Baclanaba from a small black and white magazine photograph. He showed the drawing to editors of the various newspapers and was soon employed as a the­ater portraitist. Like fellow Pennsylvanians William Glack­ens and John Sloan, the de­mands of the newspapers provided Solowey with invalu­able education. As noted artist and author Henry Pitz wrote, their experience was “a mar­velous sharpener of quick, incisive draughtsmanship and a rough and ready spur to resilience and self reliance.”

Although he reluctantly spent his first three months working from photographs, Ben’s first assignments from life put his abilities to the test; he was to produce a charcoal portrait of the legendary Ethel Barrymore appearing in The Love Duel. In his position as a novice, Ben found it hard to secure a sitting. “I was scared to death … I went to her dress­ing room and she said that usually she had very little time but she was gracious enough to give me an appointment,” remembered Ben. “My ap­pointment was for 10:30 and I waited till 12. And I was get­ting more nervous.” Finally, Barrymore awoke and gave Ben nearly an hour, although his work was made more diffi­cult by Barrymore’s incessant chain smoking. The finished portrait, autographed in ap­proval by the actress, appeared in the Times on April 7, 1929, establishing Ben’s reputation in the field. (Solowey’s early work was signed with a styl­ized nightingale in the manner of Japanese prints he admired. Much like Whistler’s butterfly, this visual translation of his name, solovei, Russian for nightingale, was dropped as his work became well known.)

Many of the theater draw­ings Solowey executed quickJy, occasionally on crowded re­hearsal stages, as the per­formers were busy and the artist was never known to miss a deadline. The double portrait for Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) was a typical instance. “Eugene O’Neill was at the rehearsal, so I tried to get [Alla] Nazimova and Alice Brady into a single drawing in a hurry. One gave me about 15 minutes in her dressing room before she was called, then the other came up for 15 minutes before she had to go-and that was it.” At other times, sched­ules were rearranged for a Solowey portrait. Pauline Lord, in The Late Christopher Bean (1933), could give only 15 minutes during the intermis­sion for her sitting. However, after seeing the work before the second act, she found an additional half hour after the show. She later bought the drawing. In 1930, Harrisburg artist Avrom Winfield brought a friend, Rae Landis, to Ben’s studio. Instantly captivated by her demure beauty, Ben asked her to dinner and proposed marriage on their very first date. One month later they married. The daughter of Moses and Gertrude Landis, Russian immigrants who set­tled first in central Pennsylva­nia, Rae (short for Rachel) came to represent “woman eternal” in Ben’s work. The couple moved to a studio on Fifth Avenue where they lived across the street from muralist Diego Rivera and his exotic wife, Frida Kahlo, and down­stairs from writer Ford Maddox Ford. Arshile Gorkey, the influential abstract expression­ist, was a frequent visitor to the Solowey home.

Performers also availed themselves of the relaxed atmosphere in the Solowey studio. De Wolf Hopper, in his first dramatic role, spent an afternoon there for his sitting. During a break in the work, Ben took the opportunity to introduce his wife. Before she spoke, Hopper made a sweep­ing gesture to the numerous portraits of her around the room, exclaiming ”Madam, we have met!” At the end of the sitting, Hopper gave the sur­prised Soloweys an emotional rendition of the staple of his repertoire, Casey at the Bat. When the portrait was pub­lished to wide acclaim, Hop­per wrote to Ben “I bow to you – You are an artist.”

The confluence, as well as the seemingly boundJess emergence, of talent in New York at the time proved to be one of the most fertile periods in the nation’s creative history. The theater especially thrived in this center of tumultuous activity. Plays after World War I reflected a new worldly aware­ness, no doubt caused by America’s involvement in the war. Playwrights began to write “thoughtful plays about human beings instead of stere­otypes,” critic Brooks Atkinson opined. The Group Theater, which rose to prominence in the thirties, revolutionized acting through its interpreta­tion of Stanislavsky’s Method, a system in which actors would tap some similar emo­tional experience in their lives that would provide depth to their characters. The theater not only reflected public opin­ion but created it as well. John Wexley’s production of They Shall Not Die literally freed wrongly convicted men in the infamous Scottsboro Case. With its new themes and new mediums, this period of in­tense innovation provided a blueprint for all the arts for years to come, and Ben Solo­wey’s theater portraits still stand as invaluable visual documentation of this turbulent era, as well as fine draw­ings in their own right.

Unlike many of his contem­poraries, Solowey insisted on working from life. He would say, “I know that the bigger the people were, the nicer they were to work with.” The list of performers and producers who vied for a Solowey sitting reads like a veritable catalogue of the American stage: Law­rence Olivier in his Broadway debut, Murder on the Second Floor; Otis Skinner as Papa Juan in A Hundred Years Old; a young Ethel Merman in Girl Crazy, who, like many actors, bought her drawing upon completion; and Kathrine Cornell in a variety of roles including The Barretts of Wim­pole Street and Candida. Basil Rathbone, Spencer Tracy, Lawrence Tibbett, Lillian Gish, George Kaufaman, Jimmy Durante, Walter Pidgeon, Al Jolson, Noel Coward, Ger­trude Lawrence, Claudette Colbert, Lily Pons, John Gielguld, and more than eight hundred other luminaries were captured by Solowey during his New York years. However, he adhered to the same unflinching standards for his portraits of unknowns as he did for those who were already legends.

He was cautioned that Katherine Hepburn, one of his personal favorites, was “rough … she’ll give you a hell of a time.” During a visit back­stage following a performance of The Philadelphia Story she said “All right, let’s go.” Recall­ing the drawing years later Ben remembered that, “About midnight I went with her and one of her co-stars, Van Heilin, to her apartment. I had her sit on the kitchen table for a couple of hours. She offered me a drink and a banana. And she was so pleased with the drawing that she bought it.”

When commissioned to do a portrait of Tallulah Bankhead in The Little Foxes Ben said, “I didn’t know whether I should even attempt to do her, be­cause hanging on the wall was an elaborate portrait by Au­gustus John – a beautiful hunk of paining.” He inevitably overcame his intimidation and produced a striking portrait, one of four over the years.

Ben Solowey arrived in New York when the field of newspaper illustration was dominated by the line draw­ings of AJ Hirschfeld and Aline Frueh, whose caricatures and cartoons were somewhat ne­cessitated by the unrefined process of reproduction of the time. It was Ben who intro­duced tonal drawings to the industry, choosing charcoal because of its quick response to his hand and its ease in correction. Strong light was employed to achieve a tonal scheme of positive values that would make an indelible mark on the page and reduce the possibility of error in reproduction.

Although his theater por­traits were extremely popular and widely respected – a six week exhibition of his work at New York’s Lincoln Center was held over for six months­ – Solowey never considered them his principal work. While he felt fortunate to be working in the theater, he considered his newspaper work, in the words of press agent Sol Jacob­son, “just a job.” Since the task of delineation took only a few hours a week, it provided him with the time and the means to pursue his own painting. With the advent of post­impressionism, cubism and futurism, Ben maintained his commitment of the classic ideal of beauty. He respected this ever-changing modern ethic, yet the work failed to alter his self-directed course. He was a simple man whose surrounding environment aroused his aesthetic im­pulses. “It seems to me,” he wrote in 1939, “that there is usually an affinity between the things people think and do, and the things they cause to have surrounding them.” Like Roger Fry’s observation of Renoir, it’s apparent that Solo­wey liked his surroundings, but only at the right distance. When asked in 1939 why he painted, he answered, “The fact that nowhere in my fami­ly’s history have other artists appeared, and that I started to paint in spite of strong family opposition, bear out a belief I have that the why of it cannot be isolated from the germ itself, if the germ is there … whether it’s good painting or bad … one paints or one does not.”

Rather than follow the trends of the day, Ben dung stubbornly to his beliefs. He refused to hire an agent and disdained any sort of self pro­motion. “I just paint what I want to paint,” he once told an interviewer. “I have never done anything with the idea in mind that it might sell. In fact, I am often surprised when someone likes something I have done and buys it, or when I win a prize at a show.” His belief in his painting was to do good work and to “al­ways hope the next one is the best.”

In 1936, Ben and Rae de­cided to purchase a farm where Ben could encompass all his interests. Shown a dozen possibilities, some of which they dismissed without ever leaving the car, the thir­teenth, a 34-acre spread in a then remote area of Bucks County, immediately appealed to them. They had to walk up to the dilapidated farmhouse and cowbarn as there were only horse and buggy tracks at the time. The nearly two­-hundred year old stone farm­house was in poor condition: the floor patched with license plates and littered with crum­bled plaster; no running water, electricity, or heat, save for a fireplace on the second floor; and the ravages of former tenants who blocked the win­dows for use as cupboards and cut down trees that obscured the view of the road. Never­theless, Ben had a vision of what “the farm” could be, and arranged to buy the property for $2500, no small sum during the Great Depression. Rae remarked later, “We would live to see the day when someone would offer us that for one acre. But Ben would not give up an inch of his land.” In 1942, the Soloweys ended their weekend trips due to the war’s gas rations and moved perma­nently from Manhattan to rural Bedminster, Bucks County. Another contributing factor was that the halftone reproduction process that Ben had used so deftly to his ad­vantage in his theater draw­ings, had now whetted readers’ appetites for photo­graphs, and only two newspa­pers still used drawings for illustrations.

Solowey set to the daunting task of renovating the farm himself “as a way to relax and Solowey set to the daunting task of renovating the farm himself “as a way to relax and for lack of funds to hire work­ers.” He spent nearly three years away from his easel in order to bring the farm up to his specifications. For the first seven years, the Soloweys lived without running water, electricity or heat. It was here that he proved to be a true Renaissance Man, in his roles as plumber, electrician, car­penter, mason and gardener, restoring the property with the same zeal and perfectionism that he brought to his paint­ing. Ben loved the farm for these very chores. “When I get tired of putting paint on a canvas I do something else for a while.” Even during the arduous reconstruction, Ben and Rae instilled a grace in their surroundings: fresh flowers everywhere (“We may be the only ones to ever have had a flower arrangement in our outhouse,” remembers Rae); crisp, pressed linens; and simple, filling meals whenever visitors arrived. For Ben and Rae, the farm became a fulfillment of many dreams, and the necessity of its restora­tion allowed Ben to indulge in a variety of activities.

In New York Solowey had learned a great deal about cabinetmaking. One day he had stopped in Henry Schle­singer’s Tenth Street shop simply to ask a question. That casual visit inaugurated an informal apprenticeship that lasted until the student be­came as proficient as the teacher. Out of great admira­tion for his friend, Schlesinger gave Ben his own hand made tools for the move to Bucks County. Ben appreciated the understated, simple beauty of certain furniture he found in museums, particularly Amish pieces. After selecting one that was both aesthetically pleasing and historically typical, he would make a sketch then return to his shop and create a shelf, table or chest virtually indistinguishable from the original.

He evicted the animals from the barn and methodically transformed it into a spacious studio. It was to be nothing less than perfect. When install­ing the mammoth oil burner required to heat the studio, he finished the job, disassembled it and began again “just to make sure it was right.” To capture the north’s unchang­ing light, which he felt was essential for his painting, he single-handedly installed large skylights in 1949.

Ben reveled in the opportu­nity to work outdoors and labored with equal enthusiasm when planting flowers as he did painting them. There was good reason for him to enjoy working on his land; it pro­vided him with an inexhaust­ible supply of material for his still lifes and landscapes, which he executed in a variety of styles and mediums. From the modernist oil, Color Fanta­sia, practically exploding with color, to the desolate winter scenes drawn drawn from his studio window, each was han­dled with a familiarity bred from living with his subject. His landscapes, as well as much of his other work, re­corded the distinctly Pennsyl­vania environment and the cool grey light of Bucks County. This work quietly won awards such as the Dawson Memorial Medal of the Phila­delphia Watercolor Club and the Gold Medal of the Fellow­ship of the Pennsylvania Acad­emy of the Fine Arts.

Solowey rarely allowed any event in his environment to go unrecorded or unused in some way. When a favorite willow was felled by lightning, Ben took it as inspiration for a series of paintings and draw­ings that bore witness to the power of nature, both creative and destructive, and the roles of man in relation to nature, as he used the willow for fire­wood and sculpture stands. Later, the massive stump was crafted into a table by Ben’s nephew, and each phase was duly recorded by pen and brush.

Initially greeted with suspi­cion by the close knit local community who referred to newcomers as “outlanders,” the Soloweys earned a place in Bucks County through their hard work. To supplement their income in the early days and to qualify for wartime agricultural status, they raised chickens. Ben read every man­ual he could find on the sub­ject, and his final operation was called “one of the best I have ever seen” by the county agent. When a man came to buy eggs, he asked Rae what her husband did for a living, to which she replied, “He’s a painter.” “Lot of good money in painting barns these days,” he murmured. Gradually the community came to know Ben as more than a barn painter. This awareness grew from art classes, exhibitions and such neighborly projects as a cross made for a nearby church. Instead of the shiny mahogany cross the congregation had suggested, Solowey fashioned one out of hand-hewn barn timbers he had found in the area. It was more in line with the simple nature of the chapel and greatly pleased the members.

Although he did not pos­sess a college degree, Ben was often asked to teach. From 1954 to 1958, he served on the faculty of the New Hope Fine Arts Workshop, which in­cluded such Pennsylvania­-based national artists as William A. Smith, Gerd Utes­cher, Joseph Hirsch and John Foster. In addition to classes in a picturesque Bucks County setting, the workshop hosted a series of lectures in which the faculty demonstrated their abilities for the public. When Solowey’s turn came, he in­sisted that the workshop’s director, painter Martin Jack­son, perform the required narration while he concen­trated on his work. The eve­ning had barely begun went the crowd started to chuckle as Jackson described that a “good” portrait always began with an egg-shaped outline of the head. As the laughing became louder, Jackson be­came aware that Ben had be­gun as he usually did, working outward from one of the sub­ject’s eyes, not inward from the shape of the head.

Later offered a position at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s school, Solowey passed few of his students in his two years because he believed many of them lacked the talent to become the professionals they hoped to be. Similarly, he aborted an early attempt to hold classes in his studio be­cause he felt dilettantes were wasting his time. The artist could not tolerate mediocrity in any form, and saw neither fairness nor wisdom in sus­taining self-delusion in art students. He expected as much honest exertion from workmen and students as he did of himself, and had little patience for individuals not willing to rise to their task.

His studio became a meet­ing place for artists, writers, and patrons. George Pa­pashvilly, a sculptor, and his wife Helen, author of Anything Can Happen, were good friends, as were fellow Acade­micians Arthur Meltzer and Paulette Van Roekens. Solowey traded work with sculptor Charles Rudy and enjoyed the company of Charles Hargens, the well known illustrator of the Western Scene. Children’s book writer Marguerite de Angeli formed a warm friend­ship with the Soloweys late in life.

Already producing a small body of sculpture, Ben learned to make his own rubber molds from friend and sculptor Joe Greenberg in 1954. Without any formal training, Ben sculpted his first piece, a head of Rae, in the late 1940s. Rae was not surprised when Ben chose to work is in this me­dium, as he had always been intrigued by it, and his interest and curiosity had consistently been the catalysts for his work in a variety of art forms.

Ben’s early pieces were cast by Pietro Suffredini, an Italian craftsman in Philadelphia, who he assisted in making molds with animal gelatins, which, by their nature lasted only briefly. When Suffredini’s health failed, Ben came to Joe Greenburg, who recognized Ben’s mechanical prowess and showed him the how to create black rubber molds which lasted longer. Ben enjoyed the combination of exacting tech­nical procedure and the physi­cal challenge of casting. He also built a rotating model stand and crafted unique sculpting tools which were to fit his hands. Ben had a hum­ble opinion of his sculptures and never considered himself truly a sculptor, even though he won several awards for his work.

It was portraiture for which Ben Solowey remained well known. Comparable to John Singer Sargent and William Meritt Chase, he was in con­stant demand for his portraits, but highly selective of his commissions so as not to inter­fere with his own work. Former State Treasurer Ramsey Black sat for a charcoal draw­ing which hangs today in the State Finance Building in Harrisburg. The College of Physi­cians of Philadelphia, the oldest medical school in the country, carried on its long standing tradition of commis­sions with likenesses of Dr. Bernard Pierre Widmann and Dr. Howard W. Ostrum. Both noted radiologists were por­trayed by Ben as caring and confident.

After seeing Solowey’s charcoal portrait of Henry C. Pitz in a Philadelphia newspa­per, Edith G. Rosenwald ar­ranged for Ben to draw her husband, Lessing Rosenwald, Philadelphia financier and rare book collector. Throughout the morning sitting in the studio, Mrs. Rosenwald unsuccess­fully implored her husband to smile. As was customary, the Rosenwalds were invited down to the house for lunch. Mrs. Rosenwald remarked what lovely home the Solo­weys had, to which Rae re­plied, “Sight unseen, Mrs. Rosenwald, this entire house could set in one of your rooms.” Ben and Rae discov­ered the truth of this statement when they were invited to the Rosenwald residence to see the portrait in place. A Fra­gonard had been moved to accord the drawing a promi­nent position in their home. Later, with an enthusiasm saved for true connoisseurs, Rosenwald took Ben on a tour of his print collection, which later became fundamental to the print holdings of the Na­tional Gallery of Art in Wash­ington, D.C.

Ben Solowey was not above refusing commissions, no matter how lucrative. Once, a busy executive in the midst of his hectic schedule flew to the farm in a helicopter to meet with Ben. Climbing down the ladder he clutched a pair of boots, insisting that Ben make sure they were in the painting to portray him as a sporting man. Not interested in vanity, Ben declined the commission. A blunt man, Ben once told an opera singer to wash the makeup off her face so he could tell the color of her skin.

Although he enjoyed portraiture, he had reached the conclusion that he did not want it as “a main way of making a living. I much prefer to paint the things I like to do.” Without a doubt his favorite model was his lifelong com­panion; attractive, intelligent, as well as graceful, Rae’s poses were neither affected nor con­trived. With characteristic modesty she dismisses this contribution by saying, “I’m lucky I’m an inactive person.” When asked who the woman in the painting is, she quickly replies, “someone 1 once knew. Once the work was done it became an artwork. It could have been an apple or a flower.”

Ben believed she was ideal in every respect. Not only did her quiet temperament suit his own, but she was truly an excellent model. “Rae knows what goes into doing a por­trait,” he said in 1966. Possess­ing no formal art education, Rae walked countless museum miles with Ben at her side, receiving, in her words “a very liberal education.” When pressed in her Later years as to why she did not paint, Rae humbly states, “my art is knowing what I’m looking at.” Although she refers to their time in New York as “the hal­cyon days,” Rae was happy to move to the serenity of Be­dminster. Both were self­-described loners; it was only after Ben’s death that Rae met her neighbors.

Ben’s intense focus, his attention to detail and his bottomless devotion to what­ever he was doing could often give the impression that he was fairly unforgiving, cold, stubborn, even rude. He was heard to remark that he would not have minded being snowed in for six months because he could then work undisturbed. Early visitors recall Ben taking pause in his work to greet them, and, for­malities over, returning up a ladder or around a hedge, oblivious to their presence.

In 1966, he suffered a mas­sive coronary attack which brought a different perspective to the activities that had en­gaged him for so long. Ac­knowledged as being among his most productive, his final twelve years were marked by a desire to make every day count. He took a renewed interest in those around him. Friends and family remember a warm, intelligent man who, in some respects, they had not seen before.

At the age of 74, Ben was given a huge antique etching press by Paul Bransom, the noted animal illustrator, whose work graced the pages of The Call of the Wild and The Wind in the Willows. Disregarding the fact that he had no training as the etcher, Ben accepted the gift, dismantled it and tagged each piece. On his return to Bucks County, he reassembled it in a former garage that he had transformed into an auxil­iary studio/storage areal classroom in 1959. Armed with only a book and a few plates of Bransom’s, Ben set to master the art of etching in his last four years. He produced a series of scenes, mostly winter landscapes viewed from his window, that bespeak a genu­ine appreciation for a Pennsyl­vania winter. The barren trees seem an intricate lace over an imposing cushion of snow.

On Memorial Day weekend in 1978, Ben finished lunch and left to trim a hedge in anticipation of visitors the next day. While taking care of the land he loved so much, Ben suffered a second, and imme­diately fatal, heart attack on May 26. Never lacking energy or initiative, he left, at the time of his death, sketches for a Pan-like sculpture, Faun, a preliminary study for his first attempt at a human figure in his etching, and several other projects in various stages.

In the twelve years since his death, his studio has remained lovingly preserved by Rae as a living testament to her hus­band’s accomplishments. At 83, Rae continues to live on her own, for the most part, because, as she feels, “I don’t think Ben is gone. I still feel that he is here, otherwise I couldn’t be here.” Indeed, because Ben Solowey put so much of himself into his work, his touch remains everywhere at the farm. There’s an under­lying presence so strong as to create the impression that he might walk into the room at any moment, brush or ham­mer in hand. With the Solo­wey studio now open to the public on a limited basis, the inspiration for the artist and non-artist alike continues to be found there among the paint­ings, sculpture, easels, and brushes.

Recognized by a circle of peers, patrons, and critics, Ben Solowey is perhaps one of Pennsylvania’s best kept se­crets because he chose to work in seclusion. His standards were his own; he presented to the public only what first passed through his critical eye. The recent Solowey renais­sance can be attributed to the sheer quality of his work, and the genuine love and talent that produced it. For a man who lived primarily from the sale of his art, it is extraordi­nary that Ben left nearly 1000 pieces behind at the time of his death. Never one for clever titles or public proclamations, his actions were his voice. Several years later Rae discov­ered a phrase that belied the nature of the Solowey oeuvre: Res Ipsa Loquitor, or, “The thing speaks for itself.” With Ben Solowey, an artist of much talent and few words, never has the expression been more appropriate.


For Further Reading

Boswell, Jr., Peyton. Modern American Painting. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1940.

Davidson, Abraham A. Ben Solowey. Lambertville, N.J.: Optique Gallery Press, 1988.

Hoopes, Donelson F. The Ameri­can Impressionists. New York: Watson-Guptill Publishers, 1972.

Lipman, Jean and Helen M. Franc. Bright Stars: American Painting and Sculpture Since 1776. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976.

Pitz, Henry C. The Brandywine Tradition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969.

Richman, Irwin. Pennsylvania’s Painters. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Associa­tion, 1983.


The editor regrets to note that Rae Solowey died on Monday, May 14 [1990], as this edition was going to press. To the family and friends of Mrs. Solowey, the editorial staff of Pennsylvania Heritage conveys its heartfelt sympathies. Without her gracious cooperation, this article would not have been possible.


Peter Frengel is currently a writer-in-residence at the Studio of Ben Solowey in Bedminster, Bucks County, where he is work­ing on a variety of projects, in­cluding a collection of fiction. He received his bachelor of arts degree from Dickinson College and his master of arts degree from the University of Leeds, England. His article entitled “Ezra Pound: A Cautionary Tale” appeared in the May 1990 edition of Dickinson Magazine.


David Leopold is the archivist for The Studio of Ben Solowey in addition to serving as the consult­ing archivist of theater caricatur­ist Al Hirschfeld’s work at the Margo Feiden Galleries in New York. He is currently at work on an exhibition of the American Theater of the 1930s.