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

While Faye Swengel Badura (1904-1991) is remembered and collected as a fine artist, her husband Bernard “Ben” Badura (1896-1986) is increasingly being recognized as one of the most important makers of frames in the United States. In fact, his frames – works of art in themselves — have far eclipsed the desirability of his accomplished paintings. The couple was a fixture of the art colony at New Hope, Bucks County, founded by William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938), which art historians now call the Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painting, the Pennsylvania Impressionists, or the New Hope School. Upon Swengel’s demise, a Lehigh Valley art appraiser and auctioneer described her as “a great lady from a different era, the last of the New Hope crowd” in an obituary that appeared in the May 13, 1991, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Both Faye Swengel and Ben Badura were students, friends, and collaborators of many in the critically acclaimed New Hope School, including Daniel Garber (1880-1958), George W. Sotter (1879-1953), and Edward Willis Redfield (1869-1965), even though these artists were a generation older. Many significant paintings by their New Hope friends and neighbors are surrounded by frames handmade by Ben Badura. They lived on the same street as (and not far from) John Fulton Folinsbee (1892-1972). Folinsbee’s wife Ruth, Emily Leith-Ross, wife of artist Harry Leith-Ross (1886-1973), and Swengel were critical to the development and success of the Phillips’ Mill Art Exhibition, a rigorously juried annual show that remains, nearly eighty years later, central to New Hope’s artistic and community identity.

The Phillips’ Mill Community Association presented its inaugural exhibition in 1929, the year a committee headed by Charles Marshall organized the association. Phillips’ Mill, built in 1756 as a water-powered gristmill, served as an informal center for the area’s early farmers and their families. In 1903, Lathrop purchased the mill, which emerged as the intellectual center of a burgeoning community of artists and artisans whose animated discussions of aesthetics, philosophy, and politics became well known. Today, the association oversees the preservation of the Phillips’ Mill Historic District in Solebury Township. Totaling twenty-eight acres, the tract was entered in 1983 in the National Register of Historic Places upon the recommendation of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation.

Faye Swengel was born and raised in Johnstown, Cambria County. After high school graduation, she attended Central State Normal School, now Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, in Lock Haven, Clinton County, before enrolling in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1923. At the academy, she studied under Garber and Arthur B. Carles (1876-1952), each of whom represented opposing factions then fracturing the school. Garber spoke for the conservatives, who favored the impressionist style and juried art shows, while the modernists, led by Carles, embraced social realism, expressionism, and open, non-vetted exhibitions. “One kind of student goes up the Delaware River [to New Hope] and the other kind goes to Paris,” Carles observed. Both Swengel and her future husband would do both.

Swengel met Badura, eight years her senior, at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he studied from 1923 to 1925 and she from 1923 to 1927. As students, they often went out into the bucolic countryside beyond Philadelphia to paint en plein air (“in plain air,” or out of doors, rather than in the confines of a studio) and in the impressionist style championed by Garber and his followers. Rural and unspoiled, Bucks County especially appealed to them with its charming historic villages, picturesque farmsteads, gentle rolling hills and, of course, the shimmering Delaware River.

The Pennsylvania Academy recognized Swengel’s talents and awarded her the highly coveted William Emlen Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarship that enabled her to study in France and Italy. (A promising young artist, Cresson entered the Pennsylvania Academy in 1860 at the age of seventeen and after his death at twenty-five, in 1868, his parents gave the bulk of their fortune to endow this scholarship.) In Europe, in 1925, Swengel met Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), the vitriolic millionaire who was filling a gallery in Merion, Montgomery County, with a remarkable collection of fine and decorative arts, one of the world’s premier private collections. Barnes commissioned Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945), architect of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum (with Jacques Greber) and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge linking the city with Camden, New Jersey, to design the handsome building housing his works of art. Barnes’ collection includes a staggering number of masterworks, among them 181 pieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 69 by Paul Cezanne, 59 by Henry Matisse, 46 by Pablo Picasso, and 18 by Henri Rousseau.

Before their encounter in Paris, Swengle had studied at the Barnes Foundation, an exceedingly rare privilege issued by invitation only by Barnes and his fervent disciples to a select few. While in the City of Light, she and Barnes visited museums, galleries, and studios together, and he sought her advice about potential acquisitions for his renowned collection. She later became one of his sentinels who selected Pennsylvania Academy students for an invitation to study the burgeoning collection.

In 1928, two years after she returned from her sojourn abroad, Swengel, in the midst of establishing herself as a portraitist and still life painter, married the thirty-two-year-old Badura. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he had been something of a child prodigy. Like Swengel, Badura’s formal art education also began at a state teachers college, the State Normal School for Teachers in Milwaukee, now the University of Wisconsin, where he studied with painter George F. Oberteuffer (1878-1940). Oberteuffer later moved to Philadelphia and taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Swengel was one of his students.

During World War I, Badura had served with the U.S. Army Air Corps in France. His drawing abilities earned him assignment to a drafting and design department, enabling him to develop his drawing skills while refining the technical design of airplane parts. Despite being in the midst of war, he was able to visit Paris and “be stimulated amidst the centuries of art the city had to offer.” After the war ended, he did many things to support his art and in 1922, to expand his capabilities, he decided to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Like Swengel, he garnered several awards at the Academy, including the Cresson Traveling Scholarship in 1924, a year before she received hers.

Badura seized the opportunity to return to France.Peacetime Paris was reveling in a heady artistic renaissance and began attracting artists working in a variety of styles and media. He was especially eager to study the works of Edouard Manet and the French impressionists, particularly Edgar Degas and Claude Monet. A chance meeting with a gilder in Paris, however, ultimately changed the direction of his career.

The process of gilding – the ancient art of applying metal leaf, usually silver or gold, to a surface – fascinated Badura. After leaving the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he informally apprenticed with Frederick Harer (1879–1948), a framer whose handcrafted creations were chosen by many artists living and working in New Hope and surrounding Bucks County. Born in Blossburg, Tioga County, Harer was the son of a successful furniture maker. A trained painter and sculptor, he studied at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) and in 1906 attended the Pennsylvania Academy where he studied under Thomas Anschutz (1851-1912) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). To support himself during his student days, he began making frames for Philadelphia artists. He also exhibited paintings in local venues, among them the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the 1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition, the Philadelphia Sketch Club, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Before long, Harer’s reputation spread far and wide and he became known simply as “the New Hope framemaker.” It was clear that the staggering number of commissions coming his way signaled a need for an apprentice. Harer taught the fine art of frame making to Badura who, in turn, improved the quality of gilding on his mentor’s frames. Although of markedly different generations, the two became fast friends and the younger protégé became heir to the Harer tradition – as well as to many of the master’s important clients. Badura even lived with Harer for a year during his apprenticeship.

In 1928, Swengel and Badura married and settled in Center Bridge, a quaint village on the Delaware River, three miles north of New Hope. He went to work as a designer for George Sotter’s stained glass studio in Holicong. Sotter was a fine landscape painter and his canvases, especially his moonlit snow scenes, command great attention today from art museums, collectors, and dealers. Like many artists who needed to supplement their income, Sotter diversified and turned to craft and to designing furniture in the Arts and Crafts style. Fellow artists remembered his home in Holicong as a treasure house of the products of his creativity.

Sotter played a pivotal role in Badura’s career. Working for Sotter, Badura designed stained glass and decorative elements for a number of churches throughout the Keystone State. Although he still painted, Badura began to feel increasingly comfortable with the income regularly generated by commissions, rather than having to rely on sporadic, often erratic, proceeds from the sales of paintings.

Two events further propelled him towards craft and away from the easel. “Daniel Garber offered to mentor one of the Baduras and continue to teach one of them as much as he could about painting,” remembered Roy Pedersen, a friend, gallery owner, and the executor of Swengel’s estate, adding, “but now it would be taught at Garber’s Bucks County home in the Cutalossa Valley just north of New Hope.” Badura considered Swengel to be the more talented artist and because sales of his frames provided a livelihood, they agreed she should study with Garber. The second event, the Great Depression, drastically impacted their careers as sales of paintings and commissions for stained glass plummeted. With Harer’s encouragement, Badura returned to making frames and opened a small shop that yielded a modest, but steady income.

The couple’s most famous neighbor in Center Bridge, just south of Uhlerstown, where Harer lived, was Edward W. Redfield, a longtime resident. In 1923, when fire destroyed the bridge spanning the Delaware River, Redfield created a widely acclaimed masterpiece, The Burning of Center Bridge, now in the collections of the James A. Michener Art Museum, headquartered in Doylestown. The Baduras moved several years later to New Hope and in 1937, aided by funding from the Federal Housing Administration, established just three years earlier, they built a small dwelling at 99 North Main Street, in which they resided for fifty years. For the design of their new home, they chose architect Donald Hedges (1905-2003), best known in the region for transforming the 1790 New Hope Mills — from which the community took its name — into the Bucks County Playhouse.

Ben Badura opened his first frame shop in 1932, housed in a tiny building on New Hope’s quaint Ferry Street. The building lacked indoor plumbing, requiring him to carry buckets of water from his landlord’s house to mix pots of gesso and gilder’s clay. (Gesso is a mixture of plaster of Paris or similar compounds used to build up a relief or fashion details on an object, such a picture frame.) He later located his workshop, with its own supply of water, behind his and Swengel’s North Main Street residence.

Badura’s mentor, Harer, was a detail-oriented craftsman whose frames were strongly influenced by those of the Italian Renaissance, a period which spanned from the close of the fourteenth century to about 1600, and the Arts and Crafts movement, a British and American aesthetic sensibility that emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Badura’s early frames emulated Harer’s, but he soon found his own style. He was not content to slavishly copy Harer’s creations.

Like Harer, Badura began with a simple frame meticulously crafted of basswood or tulip poplar and joined with miters and parallel spines. He took enormous pride in never using nails in the construction of frames. Donald Everett (1927-2000), who as a teenager began in 1941 helping Badura, remembered him stacking wood in his backyard and allowing it to dry for at least five years before he began using it. Only when he judged the wood to be perfectly seasoned would he construct a frame, painstakingly shaping the surface by hand with chisels and gouges. Badura or Everett then carved the frame. “He gave me a good set of carving tools when I worked for him,” Everett recalled in 1999, the year before he died. After the carving was completed, Badura treated the frame with eight to ten thin coats of gesso.

“He used to keep it [the gesso] in the refrigerator,” Everett continued, “so it wouldn’t go bad. Then he’d bring it out and we’d warm it up and give it [the frame] coat after coat. Then he would what he called ‘rag it,’ take a damp rag and make it smooth. And then when we were going to put on the gold, there was a gilder’s clay [bole] to put it on with that . . . You can see where he rubbed it, you can see spots where red clay comes through.”

When Badura used silver or bronze leaf, he applied it to the gesso, which he often tinted so that the color would subtly show through the burnished leaf to enhance the final effect. He often finished a frame with sgraffito (scratching through a surface to reveal a different color underneath) and punch work designs impressed on the surface from patterns he first drew on tissue. He favored floral and geometric decorative motifs, which he chose to complement the painting the frame surrounded.

Fine framing is time consuming and as demand for his frames grew, Badura gave up painting almost entirely. He kept his workshop modest and he worked with a frugality that enabled him to sustain his and Swengel’s way of life, even in the leanest of times. Badura’s Frame Shop lived up to the popular image of an artist’s atelier: untidy and cluttered with picture frames in various stages of assembly and decoration, corner pieces, canvases, and tools and implements. The shop hosted an exhibition of Daniel Garber’s etchings, in 1951.

Badura’s income requirements were minimal. Because amassing money was not important to either him or Swengel, he made only as many frames as he needed to pay their bills. “They were very plain people,” Everett explained, “and I’d say, no, they weren’t well off. If Ben needed two hundred dollars this month to pay his bills, that’s all Ben done, two hundred dollars worth of work.” Everett also said that in later years Badura often encouraged prospective customers, even artists, to purchase factory-made frames from other sources. Individuals needing a piece framed quickly learned that Badura’s Frame Shop possessed its own pace. A meticulous craftsman, Badura would not rush an order, and the completion of a frame generally took six weeks or so. As he grew older, his garden attracted more of his attention and he increasingly spent less time in his shop. Nevertheless, in his half-century career as a frame maker, Badura turned out thousands of frames for which he charged no more than eight dollars a foot, no matter how intricate the details. Although he constructed most of his frames for paintings, he produced a small number for mirrors — usually when he needed extra money.

At the age of eighty-five, in 1981, Ben Badura retired. He and his wife continued devoting attention to their garden. Everett recalled that Ben “had a green thumb . . . he could walk by a bush, break a branch off, and shove it in the ground and it would grow.” Everett characterized Badura and Swengel as intensely private and highly optimistic, which led to a catastrophe — a loss of many original works of art during a devastating flood in late August 1955 after Hurricane Diane dumped several inches of rain, causing the Delaware River to crash over its banks and submerge New Hope. Everett remembered that Badura saved his woodworking tools but little else as the waters rose. “Matter of fact, a friend of his, Sam Rowe, that owned a farm outside of New Hope,” Everett explained, “had tractor trailers. And he called Ben in the afternoon and wanted to come down with a tractor trailer and back it in and load all his belongings on that tractor and take it up to the farm till the flood went down, you know. Ben said, ‘No, the water’s not going to come up to my house.’ Nine o’clock that night it was halfway up the first floor.” Everett remembered that the Baduras “had a lot if paintings and stuff in there that he never got out,” adding, “Oh yeah. They had to take him out of the second story window at night, in a boat, ‘cause he was so stubborn he wouldn’t leave.”

While Swengel painted a variety of subjects, including landscapes and still lifes, she depended on portraiture for a livelihood. From the onset of the Great Depression, times proved difficult for her as sales for paintings in her basic impressionist style diminished. Galleries and potential customers considered her paintings dated and old-fashioned, even though a number of modernists (whom she understood to be the vanguard of the future) recognized her technical abilities. She became well acquainted with Ralston Crawford (1906-1978), American Precisionist painter, illustrator, and photographer, who in the 1930s called her “one of the two best American woman artists.” (The other was Cecelia Beaux of Philadelphia.) She showed her work at a number of prestigious institutions, such as the Corcoran Gallery, National Academy of Design, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Philadelphia Museum of Art, New Jersey State Museum, Woodmere Art Museum, Virginia Museum of Art, and the Princeton University Art Museum. Bethlehem’s Kemmerer Museum of Decorative Arts gave her a solo exhibition in 1989. The James A. Michener Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts include works by Swengel in their permanent collections.

When queried in 1958 about the Bucks County art colony, Swengel replied, “It was beginning to slide out from under the domination of the big figures of the 1920s [particularly Daniel Garber and Edward Willis Redfield]. A new group of painters was emerging. They were rebels, revolting against [the old standards and conventions]. One was [Lloyd R.] Bill Ney who was as good as any of the abstract painters. The [Solomon R.] Guggenheim [Museum in New York] had a retrospective of his work of long ago. Another leader was Peter [J.] Keenan.”

The capstone of the couple’s collaboration, “The Bernard Badura and Faye Swengel Badura Retrospective Exhibition,” was mounted by the Coryell Gallery in Lambertville, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from New Hope. Organized by gallery director Janet Marsh Hunt, the show ran from November 17, 1985, through January 5, 1986. The exhibit proved popular in the New Hope area, especially among members of the arts community. It proved financially unsuccessful, though. Visitors crowded the gallery to see the paintings by Swengel and Badura, most in frames made by Ben, but few sold. Works in the exhibit spanned the range of the couple’s careers, including pieces executed by Badura while he studied in Paris. Swengel’s Portrait of Marina, a likeness of a Russian refugee with whom she lived while attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was a highlight of the exhibition.

Less than two months after the show closed, Badura died at the age of eighty-nine, on March 1. His death ended a dynamic partnership not only between two artists, but also between fine art and craft. Swengel died five years later, on April 28, 1991, in Doylestown, closing forever a chapter in the art colony’s illustrious history. Within a decade, with the New Hope School becoming one of the most important American art colonies to be collected and curated, both Swengel and Badura emerged to share the limelight. Collectors and curators who had for years prized works by Bucks County’s luminaries — Garber, Redfield, Folinsbee, Leith-Ross, Sotter, as well as Robert Spencer, Rae Sloan Bredin, Walter Emerson Baum, Fern I. Coppedge, Charles Rosen, Ben Solowey, and M. Elizabeth Price — began to recognize the importance of Swengel’s paintings and Badura’s frames. The couple that lived simply and sought no greater reward than the joy and excitement of creating art has finally been accorded a rightful niche in the annals of American art.

 

Travel Tips

Bucks County has long been recognized as a twentieth-century mecca for artists, artisans, playwrights, sculptors, writers, actors, composers, musicians, producers, craftspeople, and poets, many whose names during the past fifty years have become household words.

The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown has championed the creativity of Bucks County — christened the “genius belt” to recognize its artistic heritage — since its founding in 1988 by a group of civic-minded residents. The museum counted one hundred objects during its inaugural year, a collection that has burgeoned to 2,200 pieces, among them 490 paintings, 31 drawings, 228 sculptures, 452 photographs, 423 prints, and 77 mixed-media compositions. Through landmark exhibits, innovative programs, and traveling shows, the museum has celebrated the generations of artists who have called Bucks County home. In addition, the museum has published numerous catalogues and books to accompany major exhibits.

The museum recently launched a $10 million capital campaign to renovate and expand its Doylestown facility. A new wing of 5,000 square feet will enable the museum to host national touring exhibits and to accommodate its own permanent collection. A second phase calls for the construction of a pavilion specifically for events and public programs. The museum’s galleries will remain open during construction.

In addition to foundation and corporate support, the James A. Michener Art Museum has received funding from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development since its founding.

To plan a visit, write: James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine St., Doylestown, PA 18901; telephone (215) 340-9800.

The Keystone State claims a number of prestigious museums that collect, interpret, and regularly exhibit works by regional artists, including the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Erie Art Museum in Erie, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, the Merrick Free Art Gallery, Museum and Library in New Brighton, the Everhart Museum in Scranton, the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley in Allentown, and the Reading Public Museum in Reading.

A number of colleges and universities in the Commonwealth administer museums and galleries that, in addition to showing works by regional Pennsylvania artists, also feature exhibitions of students and faculty members. These attractions include the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, Collegeville; the Samek Art Gallery at Bucknell University Lewisburg; the Sordoni Art Gallery of Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre; the Sharadin Art Gallery at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Kutztown; the Payne Gallery of Moravian College Bethlehem; the Mahady Gallery and the Suraci Gallery of Marywood University and the Hope Horn Gallery of the University of Scranton, Scranton; the Palmer Museum of Art of the Pennsylvania State University, University Park; and the University Gallery of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

 

For Further Reading

Adair, William B. The Frame in America, 1700-1900. Washington, D. C.: AIA Foundation, 1983.

Blume, Peter F. Inaugural Exhibition of Twentieth-Century Art. Doylestown, Pa.: James A. Michener Art Museum, 1988

Bush, George S., ed. The Genius Belt: The Story of the Arts in Bucks County. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1996.

Folk, Thomas C. The Pennsylvania Impressionists. Madison, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1997.

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

Pedersen, Roy. The New Hope Modernist: 1917-1950. New Hope, Pa.: New Hope Modernist Project, 1991.

Peterson, Brian H., ed. Pennsylvania Impressionism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Rabb, Lauren. The Pennsylvania Impressionist: Painters of the New Hope School. Washington, D. C.: Taggart and Jorgensen Gallery, 1990.

Wilner, Eli, with Mervyn Kaufman. Antique American Frames: Identification and Price Guide. New York: Avon Books, 1995.

Wilner, Eli, and Suzanne Smeaton. The Art of the Frame. New York: April Printing, 1988.

 

Joe Conti, a resident of Bucks County, is chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. From 1997 to 2006, he served in the state senate, prior to which he served as a state representative. Active in numerous civic and community organizations, he serves on the board of trustees of the Pennsylvania State University. The author received his bachelor of arts degree in 1976 and a master of arts degree in American studies in 2000 from Penn State Harrisburg. He also attended the Fels Center of Government of the University of Pennsylvania and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. This article grew out of his master’s thesis on the work of Bernard “Ben” Badura and his circle of artists.

 

Irwin Richman, a resident of Bainbridge, Lancaster County, is professor emeritus of American studies and history at the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, where he taught courses on the arts and popular culture. He is now a research associate at the Landis Valley Museum. He received his bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University and his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous books, among them Pennsylvania German Farms, Gardens, and Seeds: Landis Valley in Four Centuries (2007), The Pennsylvania Dutch Country (2004), and Pennsylvania German Arts: More than Hearts, Parrots, and Tulips (2001).