You Can Go Home Again: An Interview with James A. Michener

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

James A Michener is a man of diverse talents, boundless energy, and seemingly countless interests. He is naturally inquisitive, passionately curious. He is fascinated by the world around him and the people who inhabit it. He collects stories about far-away places as effortlessly as one gathers seashells on the shoreline in summer. He is the Ultimate Con­noisseur. Of people. Of places. Of things. Particularly fine works of art.

Michener is known throughout the world for his more than forty books and scores of articles and essays. His first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, enthralled Broadway audiences when it made its debut in 1949 as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s smash musical hit South Pacific, which newspaper columnist Walter Winchell dubbed South Terrific. His monumental best­sellers include The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Hawaii, The Source, Iberia, Centennial, Alaska, Caribbean, Texas, and Space. Titles familiar to most readers are The Covenant, Caravans, The Drifters, Journey, Sayonara, and Return to Paradise. His most recent book, Mexico, has soared to the top of best-seller lists.

Born in 1907, Michener’s fascinating life reads much like fiction. An orphan, he was taken in by an impoverished widow living in Doylestown, Bucks County. Through hard work and aided by scholarships, he graduated from Swarthmore College, taught (including a brief stint at the prestigious Hill School in Pottstown, Montgomery County), and served as an editor for Macmillan, one of the country’s best known publishing houses. During World War II, he served with the Navy in the Pacific, where he wrote Tales of the South Pacific. And the world knows the rest of the story.

Michener’s aggressive collecting of fine art began with his penchant for Japanese wood block prints and he, in his own words, “would in time own one of the major private collections … some six thousand prime examples.” He later donated this print collection to a museum in Hawaii. Michener and his wife Mari began acquiring American art with the san1e vigor and passion. Their outstanding American collection, numbering several hundred pieces, was given to the University of Texas at Austin. The collection features prized works by major twentieth century figures, including Charles Burchfield, John Marin, Max Weber, Franz Kline, Stuart Davis, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. And now, Pennsylvania – specifically Michener’s hometown – is enjoying the largess of this prolific writer and beloved native son.

The James A. Michener Art Museum was founded in 1987 as an independent, private, nonprofit organization. Established to promote a broad appreciation of the arts, the institution was named in honor of the Pulitzer Prize winning author because of his – and his wife’s – support for the arts and cultural programs throughout the United States. The museum officially opened to the public on September 15, 1988. Upon its opening he an­nounced his contribution of one million dollars to the museum: “In making this gift I hope that it would inspire people in Bucks County and nearby areas, who have in their possession some of the art from the great period of the Bucks County landscape painters, to donate the works to the center.”

In 1992, Michener pledged an additional five hundred thousand dollars to strengthen the museum’s permanent collection and increase its endowment. Entitled “The Michener Art Endowment Challenge,” the unusual program requires that the institution must acquire at least forty paintings by twenty-six regional artists during the course of one year. “Bucks County has an admirable artistic history,” Michener wrote to museum officials in announcing his gift. “Now let’s gather together the works that will demonstrate this to the world.” Michener urged potential donors “to probe into forgotten corners to ferret out the works we need so badly. If any citizen has a work which ought to be in our pantheon of area artists, he or she should get in touch with the museum.” The writer’s wife, the personable and gregarious Mari Sabusawa Michener, serves as honorary chairperson of the museum’s board of trustees.

Once described as “a small museum with big ideas,” the James A. Michener Art Museum is one of the fastest growing art centers in the Delaware Valley. This spring will see the comple­tion of an ambitious expansion of the museum, which is housed in the renovated Bucks County Prison, originally designed in 1884 by noted Philadelphia architect Addison Hutton. This much-needed expansion will enable the museum to continue chronicling the legacy of Bucks County’s artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Linda Constant Buki, first director of the James A. Michener Museum, defined the art and artists of Bucks County in an introduction to the catalogue entitled Inaugural Exhibition of Twentieth-Century Art, published in 1988.

The Muses have always favored Bucks County, and, in turn, artists here have found an acceptance by the community that is rare and special. The history of the area cannot fully be told without telling of the artists, past and present, who have made it their place of work as well as their home, or without considering the institutions and organizations that have made significant contributions to the arts through their collection and exhibition efforts…

These painters, citizens of the world and of the world of art, came to the county because of its beauty and hospitality. They were artists first, and through their art they memorialized their environs: from brick­yards to canals, from quarries to pastures, from springtime through winter. If the history of Bucks County cannot be told without telling of its artists, the history of American art of the first decades of this century cannot be told without considering the artists who were collectively known as the Pennsylvania Impressionists.

And truly Bucks County’s artists – these acclaimed citizens of the world of art – thrived amidst the region’s verdant meadows lining the banks of the picturesque Delaware River. Edward Willis Redfield (1869-1965), the most important of the Bucks County school, was both artist and teacher, as well as the recipient of numerous prizes and awards, including the Pennsyl­vania Academy of the Fine Arts’ Lippincott Prize, the Art Institute of Chicago’s Palmer Gold Medal, and the Carnegie Prize from the National Academy of Design. Redfield is repre­sented in the collections of the Pennsylvania Academy, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Walter Emerson Baum (1884-1956) of Sellersville studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which awarded him a gold medal in 1925, and later founded the Allentown Art Museum. Daniel Garber (1880-1958) taught for more than forty years at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he also studied with American masters William Merritt Chase, Cecilia Beaux, and Thomas Anschutz. George Sotter (1879-1953), born in Pittsburgh, arrived in Bucks County in 1902 to study with Redfield; today his small, intimate canvases of the Bucks County landscape are breaking auction records. And the list goes on…

Robert Spencer (1879-1931), a pupil of Garber, studied at the National Academy of Design and painted on both the Pennsylva­nia and New Jersey sides of the Delaware River. Walter Elmer Schofield (1867-1944) exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. William Langston Lathrop (1859-1938) sold illustrations to Harper’s and Century magazines; his home in New Hope became the art colony’s center of intellectual and social life. Harry Leith-Ross (1886-1973) wrote The Landscape Painter’s Manual in addition to exhibiting at prestigious museums and galleries, such as the Salamagundi Club and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. John Fulton Folinsbee (1892-1972), after studying at the Art Students League in New York, arrived in New Hope in 1916 and garnered enthusiastic acclaim for his brand of impressionism. Rae Sloan Bredin (1881-1933), a student of Frank V. DuMond and William Merritt Chase, was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design.

Few women entered the ranks of the New Hope circle. Fern Isabel Coppedge (1883-1951), who divided her time between her Lumberville studio and Philadelphia, was a member of “The Ten,” a group of Philadelphia women artists. M. Elizabeth Price (1875-1968), a pupil of the old Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, showed works at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in addition to giving lectures on art appreciation.

Bucks County began attracting the New Hope school of artists – the first of which, William Langston Lathrop, arrived in 1898 – at the very close of the nineteenth century. Within two decades, though, the region – particularly the New Hope area­ – spawned an irrepressible artists colony whose works were new and fresh and exciting, highly original interpretations of the impressionism that had originated in France and had eventually taken the art world by storm. Upon the opening of the James A Michener Art Museum’s inaugural exhibition, Peter F. Blume, director of the Allentown Art Museum, characterized this little school’s collective genius in an essay entitled “The Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painting.”

The New Hope Group … departed from the established canons of Impressionism. Critics soon acknowledged that their style was of a different stripe altogether – more American; and more virile than that of their counterparts up the East Coast. Guy Pene du Bois is quoted in the July, 1915, issue of Arts and Decoration: “The Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painters … is our first truly national expression .. .it began under the influence of the technique of the French impressionists. It has restricted itself patriotically to the painting of the typical American landscape.”

The New Hope Group may be called the last in a great tradition of realist painters of the American landscape. The modernist school that developed around Alfred Stieglitz and the artists he promoted at his “291” gallery, and the urban realism of The Eight, provide the critical counterpoint to the popular reception made possible by the art establishment machine that embraced Edward Redfield and Daniel Garber. They, as the most celebrated representatives of this group, shone with the special radiance of a candle before it gutters out…

James A. Michener recently gave an interview to Pennsylvania Heritage during which he discussed his life-long love of art, what it means to him, and how the James A. Michener Art Museum will expand the public’s appreciation of the New Hope school’s artists. In this interview, he offered an appreciation of “the art of collecting of art,” the importance of regionalism in painting, and his dedication to the museum named in his honor. The interview opened with the subject touching briefly on his background, his Pennsylvania roots, and his writing, by which all the world knows and admires him.

James A. Michener has traveled the world, explored distant lands, examined different peoples and cultures, and is much too busy to look back, but he – through this museum – has proven that you can go home again.


Despite the fact that you were raised in a house of modest means, you acquired so much knowledge about so many places and people. To what do you attribute this?

Well, I did that with everything. I have written some forty books. Many of them on very arcane subjects, very scholarly, even books on Japanese art.

Wasn’t your research made even more difficult by having to interpret a foreign language?

Oh, terribly difficult. I think a portrait of me that is very accurate occurred in Calcutta, India. When I was there that was one of the most horrible cities in the world; it was repulsive. I wanted to get a better, more ecumenical view of it and I went out into the country about fifty miles north of Calcutta, a place where they get floods every year. Now I lived there for about a week and a half with nobody who spoke English and I spoke no Indian. I had no trouble. I think I understand that village as well as I understand my home. I would walk around and talk with people and gesture… I have done that all my life.

You truly do consider yourself, as you wrote in your recent autobiography, a “resident of the world”?

Yes. Let me say it another way: I have never been afraid of being a resident of this or that part of the world.

Do you have any idea what prompted this?

I think that it goes back to early childhood. The speculation about the land there in Doylestown, the relation to the farms and roads. I think it goes way back. If it was there that it took root, is not open to debate. You can see what happened: I went all over the world, everywhere. I interpreted other peoples’ civilizations and I did maintain this abiding interest in art.

Could you have ever imagined enjoying the same stature in Doylestown as Henry Chapman Mercer, the builder of Fonthill and genius behind the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works?

No way, no way. I lived just across from his castle. I was probably his closest neighbor. In all of the time I lived there – and I was a fairly well behaved boy – that guy on his bicycle with his two big dogs never once spoke to me or acknowledged me, and we would pass each other maybe twice a day. But he was not about to fool around with some peasant. He was a seventeenth century lord of the manor. He meant it and he lived that way. They had great trouble with him. He would come into town on his bicycle … he went right through all the red lights. “Stop them­ – here I come!” He was something. I remember him so vividly, but never once heard him speak. I got to Fonthill [Mercer’s home, a castle built of concrete] very late. We weren’t even allowed on the corner of the ground. Mercer rarely had anybody in except a few chosen buddies. I never even knew who they were. Absolutely just like a thirteenth century castle along the Rhine.

There are very few towns in America – or the rest of the world – that have two castles. One is out west and the other is in Doylestown. After he built the first castle [Fonthill] at our end of town he had these Italian stone masons on his hands and didn’t quite know what to do with them, so he moved them and had them build another castle [the Mercer Museum]. That’s the only thing they were qualified to do.

I had a much more intimate relationship with the second castle. I saw it grow up and I used to play in it. I knew every little nook and cranny in it. We used to go up and play with the gallows and have mock hangings.

Your memories of Doylestown seem pleasant, despite your family’s financial hardships.

Yes. I did face tremendous barriers, but by and large my society was supportive. The churches were supportive, Sunday school was supportive, the schools were supportive, the police wanted you to behave, the Boy Scouts, the whole thing. I was helped at every corner. We had nothing. But in the things that mattered I was part of an organized society and I went to nine universities, always at public expense – because they were supportive and I had ingrained myself in the system.

You call yourself a writer, and not an author, but much of what you write is based on exhaustive research. Have you ever thought about the role of the writer as compared with the role of the historian?

I really don’t make those distinctions. I may make them but only in the most fleeting way. It isn’t part of my problem. I don’t worry about it. I think I’m a very strong teller of good stories and how they are categorized somebody else can do, not me. I don’t want to upset the apple cart. At many points in my life, people who have been in analysis have talked about me to their psychia­trists, and three or four times the psychiatrists have said, “Boy, I’d like to get my hands on that guy Michener – what makes him tick?” And they tell me that and I’m not sure I want to know. I’m getting by. I think that’s a real weakness in me, that I haven’t been as analytical as some people. I have said that I did not go into politics because I was a writer. I am a writer because I always loved politics and the organizing of society.

Does the role of a storyteller demand an analysis?

No, it doesn’t. In its classic form it does not demand adher­ence to truth. You just write. This is how it happened. If there’s a grey area or unfilled area, why you fill it. Now that’s the tradi­tion of Homer and Don Quixote and so on.

Pennsylvania writer John O’Hara believed that he was one of the most truthful writers of this century.

I am a great admirer of O’Hara. He was a feisty fellow. He was published by Random House also. When he was living in Princeton I used to see him. A very difficult man, hard to love. He was a hedgehog, a porcupine, all bristles. He not only had, but he voiced, his disappointments about his lack of ultimate acceptance by the establishment. He wrote things in his letters that I wouldn’t even peripherally think about. He even wrote about his envy of other writers and the fact that he wasn’t getting a fair shake. When John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize [for 1962], O’Hara wrote to him, “You were my second choice.” It was a marvelous line.

Unlike O’Hara and John Updike, you don’t return to Pennsyl­vania for the literary landscape. After O’Hara published Appointment in Samarra, he continued to return to his fictional Gibbsville, a thinly-veiled literary version of Pottsville.

Oh, but he did it so well.

Did you ever have any desire to transform the Pennsylvania landscape into a literary landscape?

I have been aware of it. When I was a boy I delivered papers, getting up at four o’clock in the morning, and I literally knew every household in Doylestown. And I had a kind of visual image of them … that this house the Cramers lived in … and so on. I was constantly aware of what was happening in those houses. If things had gone a little differently, I might very well have spent my life mining that treasure lode. I have thought about that. I don’t brood about it, but I know what a southern writer does when he takes a little southern village and he tears it apart. But there are others of us who have a broader vision because of the way we have been educated … and I sort of let it go at that.

Do you get back to Doylestown and Bucks County at all?

Well, we’ve always paid our taxes there, we vote there, we retain a foothold there.

Bucks County has attracted fascinating communities of writers and artists. It must have been exciting to have some of those people as your neighbors.

It was indeed. Pearl Buck, Oscar Hammerstein, George Kaufman and Moss Hart, Sid Perelman, Dorothy Parker… Now that’s a pretty sparkling congregation!

What prompted them to move to Bucks County? Was it simply a need for a country house, a retreat?

Absolutely, it’s just as simple as that. It was convenient to New York. You see you were thirty-six miles from Philadelphia and seventy-two miles from New York, but all the traffic was north. You might spend a year and a half without going into Philadelphia. You’d go into New York about every two weeks. I think word got out that it was congenial and the price of real estate was rather low.

Your art collecting – much like your writing – has received international attention. What prompted your passionate interest in art?

I have always been aware that the arts in all their forms were important to me. I knew it when I was a little boy. I liked paintings. I liked architecture. I liked the orderliness of art and its ability to get you excited. So, it isn’t anything that came late; it came almost with my growing up. I have no explanation for it. Now it may be that I anticipated the fact that I, myself, would at some point be involved in this. Never to the extent that I have been. I don’t mean in collecting art, but in the artistic experience itself. Now I never as a boy dreamed of being a writer. As you know I didn’t write anything until I was forty. So there is evidence there that it wasn’t a childhood daydream. You know, “I’m going to be a fireman or I’m going to be a policeman.” None of that ever. My childhood was rather tough, but there was that identification with the idea of art.

Can you still recall the first painting you acquired?

Yes, and I remember that it was primarily an act of decision­ – that it was going to cost around four thousand dollars and we didn’t have an easy four thousand dollars. The idea of spending that much money on something that was essentially an ephem­eral item … ! couldn’t bring myself to do it, although I wanted to. The painting was by Charles Burchfield, a marvelous painter. I loved his work, always looked for one, imagined getting one. But when it came time to put that money on the line, I just was almost immobilized. I imagine most collectors begin that way. That first purchase is really a titanic experience.

Did you have to rationalize or justify its purchase?

No, I think that it was a very simple thing. It was the first year that we had any substantial money left over after paying taxes and it began to look as if I was going to make it. So I was sort of set free economically … that I could spend the four thousand dollars. I can’t tell you how difficult it was.

How did you feel, once you made the decision to buy the painting?

Well, I think the phrase was “the log jam was broken.” Now the reason the log jam could be broken was that the decision my wife Mari and I made to spend each year the surplus after taxes on American art in the period in which we lived: May 1907 to the present. I outlined about seventy or eighty books and articles and catalogues on American painting because I wanted to know what to judge. I knew roughly what I liked. I was very familiar with art, but not too familiar with American art. [I began by] outlining those books and giving value judgments to the weight of the critic himself or herself and the strength of his or her opinions. It was no time before I realized there was a scale of values I had not been aware of … I had not discovered for myself. But having done it, you were stupid if you didn’t see that by and large the experts valued this painter far higher than they did that painter who may be just as good or just as popular. That was an instruction. Then I employed a brilliant, young, sort of avant-garde critic to write me a long report as to what he would buy if he were in my position at this point. So those are two things I did. And the third was we did scour the galleries to see what was happening. And we got some very good advice there. Not impartial. They all promoted their own men and women, but they served us very well in doing that. At least we knew they were ready and willing … At the end of that time, I cam up with a sort of an analysis of contemporary American painting which was so accurate it was frightening. With that as a background, we never had any hesitation in making a decision. None.

What did you do when you found a work of art by an unfamil­iar or unknown artist?

Now that’s the other part of this. After we had been in this for a while, we realized – and my wife has very good judgment­ – that we had our own good judgment to a far lesser degree. We didn’t have much authority behind it and so we bought also quite a few of the first canvases the artist ever sold. And we have seen spectacular things happen. We said we would never spend more than six thousand dollars on anything. Now we by and large stayed to that. We deviated from it happily and produc­tively three or four times, but not more. As a consequence, if you looked at the great appreciation, you would say that I was a genius. However, in the basement there will also be another thirty canvases that never went anywhere. We never calculated that – some of them are ones that we like the most… Maybe they were three thousand dollars and now I could get eight hundred dollars for them. Unless you had been willing to do that you wouldn’t have bought the good ones either.

Have you ever been displeased with any of your acquisitions?

I was tricked with some fakes. I don’t think I got very many, I got a couple. It’s just plain forgery. That’s a problem for any serious collector. I think a lot of serious collectors who find a fake somehow sort of stand back and don’t buy for awhile. It’s pretty much human nature to. It’s hurtful. We thought we had a Jackson Pollock, but found out that there was a fraudulent dealer in Bucks County connected with a dealer in New York. Later we found out that it was a fraud. But that’s not what’s important now. I have left on record a note indicating a couple of our paintings about which I am suspicious, so that if later my suspicions are verified, there’s not going to be an explosion. I had wondered about it from the beginning and I had others that I detected and the police moved in… It’s a dicey ball game.

Is there any special focus to your collecting today?

Mostly regional art. Young painters coming up. And the last four acquisitions are marvelous paintings from the American school.

You’ve really come full circle. You began by collecting Japa­nese prints and now specialize in American art.

Well, that was a conscious decision. I wrote five books on Japanese art. My books on Japanese prints have helped to price them out of the market. Out of our market. The pricing goes up, up, up, up, up. Now, obviously, we did not spend that kind of money at all on the Japanese prints and yet they were evaluated last year when we got rid of them, the last of them, at about twelve million dollars. So the escalation was incredible. That was partly because the Japanese had had a low opinion of ukiyo-e [popular and traditional color woodblock prints]. When they saw how the world, especially the French school, adopted the Japanese print they came back into the market about fifteen years ago to re-collect what they could have had for nothing a hundred years ago. So when they came back into the market the only place they could come was France and the United States. They bought things left and right and ran the prices way up.

How did you ever assemble a collection of thousands of Japanese prints?

I was interested in other art at the time … but Japanese prints excited me. I shifted to something I could collect.

I was stopped from collecting those by the prices. I was with a man a week ago who came up to me at a party and said, “Michener, I would like to talk to you about your work on Japanese prints, because I made a small collection.” And he said, “Last year I sold much of it to a Japanese tycoon and the print which l read about in your first book I bought for five hundred dollars” That’s Hokusai’s The Great Wave … I could not believe it [but] I know the man and I know he’s telling the truth. He apparently bought a splendid printing of it and sold it for one hundred and ninety-five thousand dollars. It’s a beautiful print and there aren’t many of them around. The Japanese had to have it. So it’s pretty clear that with that going on, there was no way for me to stay in the market.

And that’s when you turned to collecting American art?


Did you meet many artists when you were actively collecting?

We did meet a great many. In many instances we were the first public buyer of their work. And we loved it. We commis­sioned quite a few of our paintings. We did that a lot. The personal relationship with the painter was most rewarding.

You and your wife have now turned your focus to supporting the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. Do you envision this museum primarily showcasing works of art by regional or Bucks County artists?

Yes I do. I think it’s a testimony to a marvelously creative way of life there in the last century, and the paintings would be a record of that life in that community. I would think if we got eight or ten of the best paintings by Daniel Garber and Edward Redfield and John Folinsbee and Walter Baum and Walter Schofield, it would be a respectable offering. And then we’d fill it out with works of Robert Spencer and Sloan Bredin and others. I just hope we can find some of Spencer’s views of the area’s mills for the museum. I am very responsive to him because of my interest in the American social realists.

Do you think the artists of the Bucks County school realized the importance of their work at the time?

Now we hit here a very difficult point and I wish to say something about it. I don’t have to justify the fact that in this field, my wife and I bought the most avant garde American art there was. We just did it. We did it before anyone was interested. And there they are, some four hundred or five hundred paint­ings that have been assessed at a fortune. Our tastes focused on the ashcan school, the social realists, and the real far out avant garde. We made this American collection and we placed it in Texas; the Japanese print collection, one of the greatest in the world, we placed in Hawaii. So we’ve done it. But at the same time I was interested in the group of people who lived in Bucks County and had their own little world and I think that it’s just as legitimate as the others.

Now when we get all of the Bucks County paintings that we can for the museum, it would be entirely possible and justifiable for a critic to come and say we had wasted our time on essentially a minor focus of world art, and maybe a semi-minor focus restricted to American art. But I have that same feeling of delight in working with the people who were my neighbors and who did it their way and who achieved reasonably happy lives and had their work accepted by their neighbors. So the difference between the Texas collection and the Bucks County collection is very hard to reconcile.

I must say the Michener Art Museum is marvelous. It’s a gold mine. Those wonderful walls. To be in affiliation with the Mercer Museum and the big library and everything … that’s going to be a center of some importance. Here is this town with these marvel­ous things. Of course the political leaders deserve great credit for having caught the vision of what could be done there.

What characterizes an artist as a bona fide member of the New Hope school?

There we need some strict definitions. I think that Clarence Carter, Lee Gatch, and Elsie Driggs are all part of the experience too. Carter is a phenomenon, one of the sort of prototypes of the little guy who just stays with it and is still painting when all the others are long gone. He’s always been a vital part of the system, a meticulous artist and he’ll survive. I suppose I have written six introductions to shows that he, through sheer determination, managed to persuade somebody to put together in various parts of the United States. He must be eighty-eight, maybe eighty-nine, and just as strong now as he ever was. And he still paints. He changes his style about every ten years. I believe there’s a couple of his early paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

How does one “define” the Bucks County school then?

Well, I don’t want the New Hope circle to be just horizontal landscapes with a snow scene now and then. I want it to be more than that. The flourishing of the major figures occurred about twenty years before my life experience. My artistic experience was from forty on. Theirs would be from the late 1890s to about 1940. They were phasing out just as I started. I believe that it ought not just be the horizontal landscapes; there’s a lot more to it than that. It should be very embracing.

I think that you can’t define a school by whether the living members admitted somebody else to it. I think it’s defined by what the painter did, whether they belong to that culture or not. There were a lot of French impressionists who didn’t know one another, but their work threw them into that and I feel strongly about that. I read that at one time Redfield tried to run Schofield out of Bucks County, saying, “This is my field, I do the land­scapes here.”

So this school should be more inclusive than exclusive?

Definitely. I don’t think that we will define it as merely the landscape painting of the major figures. It’s a lot more than that.

Do you have a favorite among the group?

Well, let’s take three. I like Redfield very much. I like Spencer very much. I like Elizabeth Price as a sort of a decorator-artist. I was very close to – and had great admiration for – Lee Gatch [1902-1968]. He dedicated and autographed several of his paintings for me. He was a tough guy.

I suppose in many ways the Michener Art Museum then will help define what the New Hope circle of impressionism is really all about?

Very much so. For somebody to say that we don’t have anybody of the quality of Raphael or Cezanne, the answer is, “You are entirely right!” But what we do have is a cohesive group representing rural Pennsylvania life at a period when it was very attractive and then it branches out. I don’t think the school ought to be defined geographically either; it must include the peripheries, but not reaching to artists who spend one weekend at the inn painting. I don’t think it should be defined chronologically. Garber’s paintings and others of the Byron area, the little town on the other end of the bridge [that used to be] at Point Pleasant in New Jersey, really summarized many aspects of the school. I think the focus of the Michener Museum should continue to be the fine regional art. Bucks County is so rich in painting and has so many good painters, and I think that they should be remembered.

That’s a very important distinction then.

It’s a nucleus that works out in both those directions, spatially and chronologically. There was a spirit that animated this movement. Other artists did live there, they did work, they made their living. It wasn’t just Redfield and Garber.

Was there a real sense of community among the artists or writers?

There was among the artists, but not among the writers. The writers were more secure nationally. And apart from me and Josephine Hertz, any writer that was there was already making a fortune, so they were a pretty special group. Moss Hart, George Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Sid Perelman, Pearl Buck. .. now these were top drawer. And they didn’t need it; as a matter of fact, it was rather good to get away from the pressures of New York and success.

I can’t think of any artist, except maybe Daniel Garber, who made an exceptionally notable living. They were all good. I’d like to know more about Frederick Nolan Price, who had the Ferargil Galleries in New York and was a hook to the outside world. His sister, Elizabeth Price, was a darned good artist. I hope we can find some of her canvases for the museum. She did gold and silver, and red and blue flowers, real Renaissance panels. His sister married a very fine yow1g artist who died far too soon, Sloan Bredin. His brother carved frames. Price represented Garber, Redfield, and Folinsbee and so on. He kept the outfit together.

Fern Coppedge is now one of the most sought-after painters of the New Hope circle, but wasn’t she ostracized by the artists because she was a woman?

I think Elizabeth Price felt the same. I can’t see Garber and Lathrop and Redfield bothering much with women on a serious note. I think they would have been pretty standoffish.

What would you like to see the James A. Michener Art Mu­seum become in the future?

The museum building will do justice to the splendid setting. I think that’s very important… I would think that even a fine building won’t amount to much unless it tells the story of the artistic experience of this unusual community.

Doylestown, this curious little community, has a heavy German and Quaker background. It’s handsome, it has the river, it has a lot going for it. It has the accidental congregation of those artists. So it’s a unique community, one might say. Probably could be matched elsewhere, but I don’t know where.

What do you see as the role of the private collector today?

I have one firm conviction, that elected officials ought not be given the burden of sorting out contemporary art. If you had in Philadelphia in 1910 an elected official who bought a Picasso, they might have executed him. They certainly would have laughed him out of Philadelphia. And now if he had bought ten of them, today they would be worth a fortune. I don’t want to place the burden of that selectivity on elected officials. I think that has to be done by private individuals who can withstand the scorn or are in1pervious to retaliation and so on. They get them at their expense and they in history weed them out. So that fifty years later there will be somebody in the area who has three or four Picassos that will get into the museums. I think that in any period the private collector is almost the key to the whole situation. There was the patronage of the Medicis, Catherine the Great, the rich burghers of Amsterdam, and the great houses of England.

As a generous donor to museums, how do you feel about the issue of deaccessioning that many museums are – and will be – ­facing?

I am more ecumenical on that point than my wife would be. I just don’t think things are ever engraved in granite. I think you face problems as they come along. I think that it’s entirely legitimate for a museum when they own too many pieces by one artist. They ought to do it anyway. I was impressed when I walked into the galleries at Texas a year ago to find on the wall, in our collection, a most beautiful Mark Rothko, a big gorgeous thing. I thought it was wonderful that they got hold of a Rothko. It was on loan from the Metropolitan; they had more than they needed and they place them around the country from time to time.

Do you have a favorite museum?

I would say that at the end of my exploring, r do believe that I had seen every major museum in the world except the Dresden [because] I couldn’t get into East Germany. I have been in Russia. I’ve been in Brazil I’ve been in Japan. I’ve been in Taiwan. I’ve been in China. The ones that I remember with greatest affection are probably those in Florence and Spain. They had a powerful impact on me, but that’s from the point of view of quality. The museum that did me the most good was the National Gallery in London, which is a marvelous museum. The Louvre is so big it engulfs me, I don’t know the German museums as well as I should. The museums in Moscow and Leningrad I used to know very well, intimately, written about them. In our country the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington are very good. For a small museum I doubt that you could beat the Frick Collection in New York; it is marvelous.

Would you say, then, that a museum is only as good as the collection it owns?

In the end that’s true, but l would factor in also the ingenuity of the management to utilize whatever brilliant creativity that they have. I don’t believe in museums that own nothing and only bring in floating shows they can get. That’s just not acceptable. I don’t want to see the Michener Art Museum go that route – it isn’t good enough.

This last question is probably the most difficult. What advice would you give a collector?

I am absolutely convinced, without any question, that I could go into a market today at age forty, having done the background study I did then, and just about duplicate what I did. If I were a young man right now, I might have a limit of six thousand dollars. I sure as hell wouldn’t have a limit of twenty-five thousand dollars. I would just go around and see what are the good things they’re doing and ask in different places and I would not do it on my own. I would want the advice of people with taste. I wouldn’t do it on my own any more. I would study what the general opinion was and what the parameters were and everything else. I would go to museums and I would see special exhibitions.

I think you should. buy what you can afford, but what you like. Otherwise, it defeats the whole purpose of art. I should think also that you would have in the back of your mind the possibility or even the probability that you will one day turn it over to a suitable museum.

Of course, our philosophy may be different from somebody else’s, because we don’t believe in owning personal collections or in just showing this to your friends. I don’t think you own any work of art. We’re all just temporary custodians. You share it and you hope that what you like, a lot of other people do too. Some may not, but that’s a personal thing, a very personal thing.


For Further Reading

Cummings, Paul. A Dictionary of Contemporary American Artists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971.

Folk, Thomas. Robert Spencer: Impressionist of Working Class Life. Trenton: New Jersey State Museum, 1983.

____. The Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painting, An Original American Impressionism. Allentown, Pa.: Allentown Art Museum, 1984.

Foster, Kathleen, A. Daniel Garber. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1980.

Hunter, Sam. American Impressionism: The New Hope Circle. Fort Lauderdale: The Museum of Art, 1984.

Inaugural Exhibition of Twentieth-Centuny American Art. Doylestown, Pa.: James A. Michener Arts Center of Bucks County, 1988.

Michener, James A. The World Is My Home: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1992.

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

The James A. Michener Collection: Twentieth Century American Art. Austin: University of Texas, 1977.

The Paintings of John Folinsbee. Trenton: New Jersey State Museum, 1982.


The editor wishes to thank Bruce Katsiff, director,and Linda Milanesi, public relations director, James A. Michener Art Museum, for their gracious assistance in arranging this interview, as well as for provid­ing illustrations to accompany it. The editor is indebted to Vincent Cianni of New York who photographed James A. Michener during this interview at the writer’s summer house in Maine.


Michael J. O’Malley III is editor of Pennsylvania Heritage.