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

Early in his career, artist Julius Bloch (1888-1966) painted serene landscapes, but the force of his compassion for the human struggle soon over­powered his heart and his canvas. He felt compelled to portray instead the blacks, the working poor, the unemployed that made up the fabric of American life during the Great Depression. In 1932, he won­dered in his journal why such somber subjects tugged at him, and answered, “I tried landscapes but found blue cloudless skies unfathomable. When the day is grey I am content.”

During his lifetime, Julius Bloch’s subjects ranged from flowers and landscapes in the 1920s to social realist portraits in the 1930s, to more abstract and colorful paintings in his later years. But it was his very personal Depression era portraits – of the striker, the shoe-shine boy, the prisoner, the coal miner, the janitor, the dispossessed farmer, the longshoreman – that captured the human spirit and drew wide acclaim.

In 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt saw Bloch’s oil painting The Young Worker in a Public Works of Art exhibition at the Cor­coran Gallery of Art in Wash­ington, D.C. She “stopped stock still in front of it,” according to an Associated Press reporter, and selected it among the first of a group of paintings for the president’s executive offices. She sought out the artist and invited him to have lunch with her at the White House, kindling a lifelong friendship. Over salad, Bloch told her, “We cannot help but develop a distinct American art if we are firmly interested in the life of our country.”

Julius Bloch, a German Jewish immigrant who rose to become one of Pennsylvania’s foremost artists, absorbed American life with intensity, noting, “I would tell the story of man’s yearning and of his defeats.” He sketched riders on Philadelphia’s subways, spoke with food vendors he passed on the sidewalk, watched groups sitting on park benches and traveled to Pennsylvania’s hard coal region to study the ways of miners. When forced to walk between two lengthy bread lines to enter the build­ing housing his studio, he imagined as though he were waiting for bread himself.

When Julius Bloch died in 1966 at the age of 78, he left a rich body of work depicting an important period in American history. His oil paintings and lithographs have been ac­quired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithso­nian Institution, the Metropol­itan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The State Museum of Pennsylvania and other impor­tant collections throughout the world.

Predominating in Bloch’s portrayal of the American scene is the black man. Bloch is “widely recognized for the intensity of his psychological character studies of the Ne­gro,” announced the Negro History Bulletin of December 1956. Bloch’s work depicts “little known aspects of Negro life and character,” commented Howard University’s Dr. Alain Locke in The Negro in Art in 1940.

Moved by both the struggle and the beauty of blacks, Bloch portrayed them with a dignity and sensitivity that art histo­rians consider noteworthy. One of his paintings, Deacon William Mann, now at the Met­ropolitan Museum of Art, New York, depicts a distinguished­-looking robed black man with a book in his hand, seated in a big chair, appearing to be an important official; he was actually a church deacon and handyman. The Whitney Mu­seum of Art’s painting, The Lynching, depicts a black man being lynched, arms extended in an image clearly associated with the crucifixion, which the Philadelphia Public Ledger, in a 1932 review, heralded as “the first painting of any impor­tance” on the lynching of blacks in America.

In 1934, when invited to submit a painting for display in the window of a posh center-city Philadelphia de­partment store during Na­tional Art Week, Bloch gave a portrait of Alonzo Jennings, a black. Store officials believed it was one of the finest paintings they had seen in years, but declined his offering, as the store “could not exhibit a por­trait of a Negro in its win­dows.” They asked Bloch if he had any pictures of whites. He said he did, but added they were not available.

Touched, too, by the plight of anthracite miners, Bloch made a five-day visit with a friend to Pennsylvania’s an­thracite region in 1932, prepar­atory to painting The Coal Miners. His painting particu­larly pleased him and he often wanted to return for further work in what he called the “Kingdom of Coal,” but he could never afford to buy a car.

Deeply moved by his trip, he called the coal region “a strange world so utterly differ­ent with its vast population of Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks, Russians, Italians, and per­haps still other Eastern Euro­peans.” He had found the area around Wilkes-Barre to be relatively “thriving,” and a possible inspiration for his painting, but described the area near Hazleton graphically.

Everywhere gigantic pyramids of coal dust and slate, plateaus that looked like seas of pitch, great monster breakers cutting their grim shapes sharply into the sky. I traveled back, away from con­crete highways aver dirt roads, to strange little villages, miners’ homes, huddled around the gloomy, inky skyscrapers that made up their ‘downtown.’ Never before had I seen in this country such primitive and ugly living conditions … The business of gouging coal out of the ground has left its mark everywhere. The people are sombre, for the most part look very unhappy. Nothing seems to have been done to make their lives a little less drab, noth­ing to delight the eye; the one­-time pine forests have almost entirely disappeared. No thought on the part of the masters to help make this painful labor a little more bearable.

During the early Roosevelt period, Bloch did significant work under the federal Public Works of Art Project, a relief program, but resigned when the bureaucratic red tape started sapping his creativity to accept an invitation from patrons he had met at the Academy of Music. He moved to their sprawling Chester County farm, painting undis­turbed for eight years in a house they had built especially for him. He then returned to Philadelphia to teach at the venerable Pennsylvania Acad­emy of the Fine Arts, spread­ing to students his message that one must understand life to understand art.

In part because he re­mained a bachelor, the Acad­emy soon became his lifeblood, the students his family. He nurtured his students, respected his col­leagues, and was creative in his efforts to make aspiring artists “see.” One former stu­dent recalls that, although Bloch’s portrait class was held on the fourth floor of the Academy annex, he had the nude model pose on the first floor. Students who wanted to avoid having to go down long flights of stairs and back up again quickly learned to etch in their minds the essence and details of the model.

Bloch was seen as a sensi­tive, courtly, soft-spoken man of fragile temperament. His outstanding quality was his caring nature; even though he worked diligently from early morning until dusk, he spent much of his rare free time encouraging his students and other talented artists of all ages, and writing letters bring­ing their work to the attention of potential buyers, including Eleanor Roosevelt.

He was beloved by his circle of friends, relatives, students, patrons and admirers. A few fellow artists regularly visited Bloch at his studio, a serious place in which he turned paintings in progress to the wall until he considered them worthy of being seen, and destroyed canvases that dis­pleased him. Others joined him at the Colonnade Cafete­ria or Dewey’s where, over endless cups of black coffee, they discussed the world of art, Bloch drawing on napkins the entire time. His admiring patrons invited him to dinner, to summer in Woodstock and, after World War II, to accom­pany them on trips to Italy and Greece.

Although he only accepted offers of assistance from per­sons he genuinely admired, he was grateful for the smallest kindness – once astonishing a fruit merchant in Phoenixville by sending him a lithograph in appreciation for good service. In turn he assisted others; unlike other artists of the time, he paid his models. During the bleak years of the Great Depression, he paid wages of fifty cents an hour, even giving one model his own shoes when he discovered she had none of her own.

In the journals he kept for most of his life the private Bloch often brooded about many things: his constant struggle with the elements of color, space, and weight; his concern for the hopelessly unemployed and the working poor; his anxiety for the Jews caught in Hitler’s net; his dread of the atom bomb; his daily monetary problems; his loneliness and sense of es­trangement even among oth­ers; and his repeated bouts of depression, a family malady. Yet those who knew him said he rarely discussed anything unpleasant; they invariably described him as one of the most sensitive persons they had ever met. “You could feel his love, his sensitivity,” one former student recalled. “It made being in his company a special thing.”

Born in Kehl, Germany, on May 12, 1888, Bloch was the youngest child and only son of Nathan and Emma Bernheimer Bloch. The family immigrated to the United States when Julius was five years old, moving to Uber Street in North Philadelphia, where they lived for most of their lives in a house that visi­tors bluntly described as “a gloomy place.”

Theirs was a close-knit family. Only one sister ever married, to a cousin, but she was soon widowed and re­turned to live with the family. Bloch credited his mother with being the dominant influence on his life, encouraging him as an artist at a time when art was not valued as a career, and imbuing him with a love for music and literature. Inevita­bly, she was the subject of many of her son’s sketches and paintings. Bloch described his father as a “poor, little, unhappy old man, so much defeated all through his life,” when the Stetson Company denied him a retirement pen­sion in 1932 after thirty-three years of employment because he had started work there when he was already forty­-three years old.

Visitors recalled that Julius was the darling of the family, even though not all members of his family understood what he was trying to do. Guests knew not to disturb him when he was sitting in his lounge chair “seeing in his mind” what he wanted to paint.

Bloch attended Central High School and the Pennsyl­vania Museum and School of Industrial Art, then studied for four years at the Academy, later taking courses at the Barnes Foundation. During World War I he was drafted by the Army and saw action near Verdun. Throughout his life, he was haunted by the mem­ory of a young man named Dennis, the first dead soldier he ever saw. In his journal he wrote, “Dennis, with his bright, shiny eyes did not appear to be more than 20 years old and had the silent, beautiful face and form of all the Dennises doomed to die.”

Throughout the 1930s Bloch’s lithographs appeared in New Masses, a left-wing publication that featured the works of Eugene O’Neill, Sherwood Anderson and leading idealistic, creative individuals of the time. Poet Langston Hughes saw Bloch’s The Prisoner in New Masses and asked him to donate a copy of the lithograph to help raise money to defend blacks in the Scottsboro trial. Bloch com­plied. In the case, nine youths were tried and convicted of raping two white girls in Ala­bama, despite overwhelming evidence in their favor.

In 1934, Bloch was named to the project rolls of the Public Works of Art Project, a federal relief effort requiring that its artists depict the American scene and that all pieces be­come the property of the gov­ernment. His work executed under the auspices of this program, including Young Worker and The Striker, at­tracted both prestige and pub­licity; the New York Times reproduced The Striker.

Bloch considered his work artistic rather than ideological, and in 1935 rhetorically asked in his journal: “I should like to know what is the opinion of the leaders of the Workers parties, the Communists, and other radicals of The Striker? They would probably have to inform me that I have not the proper ‘ideology’ since propa­ganda as such was certainly not my reason for painting this picture.”

In a touch of humor, in one journal entry of that period he described an official visit. “Yesterday afternoon when I had finished working, there was a knock on my door. ‘We’re from the Department of Labor,’ said two formidable­-looking gentlemen, calling to mind the proverbial gangster, racketeer or political hanger­-on. ‘Here’s our credentials,’ sticking a card under my nose. ‘We’re here to investigate your business. So it’s pictures. Well, you’re a manufacturer, aren’t you? How many people do you employ?’

“I protested that I was an artist, painted these pictures myself, didn’t employ any­body. ‘Come down to earth,’ said the Inquisitor. ‘Speak plain language. You manufac­ture these pictures. What are you, wholesale or retail?’ ‘I’m not in business. I paint pictures,’ I protested. ‘Come down to earth. Where do you market them?’ ‘I have no mar­ket. I can’t even sell them: The investigator scrutinized me suspiciously: ‘What classifica­tion do you come under?’ ‘I’m an artist, a professional man.’ He looked under the long array of almost every kind of undertaking, and could find no place to stick me in, until finally, at the bottom, he said, ‘Oh yes, here it is, Number 806 … Other.'”

After two years with the federal program, Bloch was promoted to a supervisory post at one hundred and sixty dollars a month with the Works Project Administration, where he helped organize an exhibition of WPA art in a subway concourse in Philadel­phia that attracted great atten­tion. He found that the position required him to spend more time filling out forms and documenting workers’ hours than painting. In addi­tion, the late-night radio re­ports about escalating atrocities in Europe were mak­ing him overwrought.

During this period, while working on The Lynching, Bloch returned to his journal. “I hope that I shall soon be able to give up this type of material. It no doubt is morbid – but when I think of the state of the world in which we Jive today, with no end of suffering everywhere, Negroes lynched, Jews persecuted by Hitler in Germany, Italian soldiers forced to face death­-dealing guns and disease in Ethiopia, the Ethiopians in­vaded by the would-be Em­peror Mussolini, the prospect of another World War, I won­der how I can be anything but sombre and dwell much on the hard lot of human beings elsewhere.”

By 1938, he was glad to resign from his federal job and move to Paoli, where two sisters, Rebecca Winsor Evans and Eleanor Winsor, sup­ported him in a cottage and studio they had built for him on their estate. Although he traveled weekly to his studio in the city, he was content in his country home, doing what he considered some of his finest work.

During the late 1940s, Bloch, like many other artists, moved from ideological sub­jects to more abstract works. He never explained the impe­tus for this change in his jour­nal, although one factor may have been the McCarthy hear­ings, with their danger of being blacklisted. Bloch’s health was declining; he may have wanted to avoid further stress.

Throughout the 1950s, the artist traveled extensively in Italy, Greece and Turkey. He became attracted to Byzantine art, which was reflected in his work, as he turned to more brilliant colors, mosaic pat­terns and stylized portraits with sightless stares.

In 1962, in Venice, on a beautiful clear day, Bloch, then seventy-four, stopped at an American Express office to pick up his mail and was handed a telegram notifying him that the Academy no longer required his services. His companion, a former Academy student, recalled that, “Julius got so woozy he had to sit down.”

Bloch’s students vigorously protested the dismissal, but the Academy would not relent. Although Bloch had been plagued by circulatory prob­lems and had had minor dis­agreements with the new management of the Academy, his forced retirement after fifteen years crushed his spirit. Friends say he never recovered from the blow.

Eventually, Bloch had to rely on his friends for financial support, but continued work­ing in his South Eighteenth Street studio every day. On August 22, 1966, shortly after visiting a travel agent to ar­range for a trip to Italy and Greece, Bloch died of a mas­sive hemorrhage, leaving to the world his legacy of a life­time of social concern.

Thirty years earlier, he had written in his journal: “I’ve made many drawings lately in which the present almost universal condition of want and unrest asserts itself. These drawings are passed by today by our harassed, hurried city dwellers. They are realistic and fairly accurate in their state­ments of how people look and I know that the time will come, long hence, when they will be looked upon as a living record of a decade in the past.”

The time has come.

 

For Further Reading

Biddle, George. An American Artist’s Story. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1939.

Brown, Milton. American Painting From the Armory Show to the Depression. Prince­ton: Princeton University Press, 1955.

Likos, Patricia. “Julius Bloch: Portrait of the Artist.” Philadel­phia: Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, 79, 339 (summer 1985).

Reese, Albert. American Prize Prints of the Twentieth Cen­tury. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949.

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

 

Margaret Bloch Eisen, of Hun­tingdon Valley, a cousin of Julius Bloch’s, recalls that a lithograph of Bloch’s Young Worker hanging on the wall of her parents’ lunch­eonette in Queens, New York, frequently drew favorable comments from the working-class customers. A graduate of Syracuse University School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and is currently a writing instruc­tor at Temple University. Her free­lance articles on numerous subjects have appeared in national publications. The author thanks Benjamin D. Bernstein, Bloch’s longtime friend and executor of his estate, for providing informa­tion and illustrations for this article.