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

Even today, take any of its highways or byways and, around some turn in the road, a visitor can be overwhelmed with a scene of such intimate beauty that it makes the heart race a little. This is the bucolic Lehigh Valley of southeastern Pennsylvania. Streams and stone houses, church spires, quaint villages nestled among the lush, rolling hills – all come together in a blend so distinct that few­ – if any – regions in the country can quite compare with it.

Imagine, then, growing up in one of the village crossroads or on one of the expan­sive farmsteads of a hundred years ago, before the advent of changes that have forever altered the rural landscape. What would this sumptuous region have looked like when the land was populated by farmers and tradespeople, when every view of the countryside was pristine?

Walter Emerson Baum (1884-1956), who grew up in the charming valley communi­ty of Sellersville and lived his whole life in the area, became not only one of the greatest exponents of the critically acclaimed and enthusiastically collected Bucks County artists, but an extraordinary teacher and sagacious collector of fine art. Through his enormous body of work, he became the chronicler of a van­ishing landscape and a disappearing way of life.

Sellersville during the last decade of the nineteenth century – when Baum was growing up – boasted a population of about one thousand. Most of its residents were descendants (as were the Baums) of German farmers who had immigrated to Pennsylvania from the Palatinate in the eighteenth century. These hardy colonists landed in Philadelphia and traveled north to settle farms and villages in the new land, seeking religious freedom and the opportunity to continue their traditional way of life.

The Pennsylvania German settlers were not only practical and industrious work­ers, but kept within them the spark of creativity that accrued over generations of pride in craftsmanship and for whom, in the old country, as Baum later wrote, the craft of wood carving had been “carried out almost as a matter of course.”

Although that craftsmanship may have been set aside because of the exhausting realities of daily living in the New World, Baum believed strongly in the artistic bent of his forebears. Indeed, his father Harvey Baum organized the Sellersville Band and was for nearly thirty years its conductor, composer, and cornetist. As a boy, Walter Baum took lessons from a fraktur master who taught him the distinctive, elaborate penmanship traditionally used to embell­ish records and documents such as tauf­scheine (birth and baptismal certificates), books, and manuscripts.

The people of his childhood showed Walter Emerson Baum by daily example the real meaning of goodness, generosity, and faith in the traditional way of one’s culture. As time passed, he grew increas­ingly proud of his heritage and sought to render and preserve it through his art. His landscapes disclose the environment of his people, offering so moving a sense of place that the vision resonates with the presence of its inhabitants and their imag­ined lives.

Although his family hoped he would become a barber like his father, Baum set his heart on becoming a painter. He stud­ied with William Trego, a history painter who lived near Baum from 1903 to 1909, and attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1905 and 1906. Both the institution and the city would be a major artistic center for his career – he lived his entire life only forty miles away. He was represented in various exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy, belonged to artists’ organiza­tions in Philadelphia, and visited innu­merable gallery and museum installations for more than forty years.

Baum and his wife Flora, who had also studied under Trego and was the guiding light of her husband’s artistic career, raised four children in a busy and warm family environment. Walter added to the family income as a reporter and later as editor of the local newspaper, the Seller­sville Herald, and by teaching art classes in
Sellersville between 1910 and 1930. In 1925, at the age of forty, he won the Jennie Sesnan Gold Medal for best landscape in the annual competition, hosted by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This award was so prestigious an honor in Philadelphia that Baum’s career was for­ever altered by it. Thereafter his work was automatically accepted for exhibition at the Academy and, in the eyes of his peers, he became a major landscape artist. He was soon asked to organize an art class and teach painting in either Philadelphia or Allentown.

Baum picked Allentown and began a thirty-year involvement with that community, one that permanently influenced .the artistic direction of the area. He began in 1926 by conducting his class in a local fire station, but soon thereafter the Allentown School District began providing him with classrooms in various school buildings. Baum had the great fortune to have picked a community that was rich in aspi­rations, and with people who would need only a leader to help guide them towards fulfillment. They felt a strong kinship with Baum not only because of his per­sonal warmth and natural teaching ability, but also for the Pennsylvania German background he shared with many. Baum fit in well, and he and Flora made lifetime friends.

In 1938, Baum wrote and published Two Hundred Years, the story of his childhood in Sellersville and his ancestors there – a fascinating account of a way of life that would be lost alter World War II. It begins with the history of the land and Native American civilization and continues with descriptions of the traditional culture of the Pennsylvania German people as Baum lived and observed it at the end of the nineteenth century.

In spite of the many demands on his time, Baum, who believed artists should work every day to develop their tech­niques and sharpen their perceptions, churned out an extraordinary amount of art. He loved exploring the countryside and the villages of Bucks, Lehigh, Berks, and Montgomery Counties, driving until a landscape caught his interest and then setting up his easel, ready to work quickly in several different-size formats.

His earliest landscapes showed a strong influence of tonalism, which quickly gave way to the Bucks County Impressionism of Edward Willis Redfield, Walter Emerson Schofield, and Daniel Garber. Artists of the New Hope School were well known for working outdoors in all seasons. Baum followed this tradition, producing large canvases painted out­doors with the vigorous, full brush stroke associated with this group. He specialized in winter scenes, a theme typical of Bucks County art. His vision was unique and the paintings he produced during this early period are considered among his best work.

The Sellersville region, itself, inspired Baum’s artistic vision. A favorite subject was the gristmill, many examples of which were still in use during these years. He was drawn to the mill not only for its rustic picturesqueness but as an icon of his Pennsylvania German heritage. For him, all the hardships and triumphs of his ancestors were embodied in these struc­tures. The Old Red Mill, a forceful rendition of a small country mill frozen shut by snow and ice, captures that spirit.

He had added to his Philadelphia schedule visits to art exhibitions from which he made up a weekly review for The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Constant exposure to the Philadelphia art world was to keep him abreast of all the current artists as well as art of other time periods and cultures represented in museum exhi­bitions. Subjects he reviewed ranged from ancient to modern art. In order to mention as many shows and artists as possible, Baum generally offered fewer critical comments than he otherwise might have.

But on occasion he did offer praise or crit­icism. Such was the case with a Robert Newman painting in the 1931 exhibition at the Little Gallery of Contemporary Art, which inspired him to relate – implicitly, at least – his own standard for painting. “It [Newman’s painting] cannot be attrib­uted to any period or type of painting. Therefore, it gratifies as a true work of art. It is rich in color, poetical in conception and masterfully painted.”

In a 1940 article for The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, entitled “So You Want To Paint? Well, Why Not?” Baum outlined his approach as a teacher. The piece was illustrated with step-by-step photographs showing how a beginner should choose and paint a village scene. Using photo­graphs of himself working at his easel, he emphasized, “Don’t be stingy with your color and don’t use tiny brushes. In either case your picture might look stiff or ‘picky’ and neither of these qualities possess the virtues of vitality …. Mix your colors only as you apply them to the canvas to keep them clear.”

An article in the May 1940 issue of American Artist focuses on Baum’s ability to paint a scene in various media and sizes, altering his original impression until the scene is no longer recognizable. The article uses a series of his compositions based on Mauch Chunk, north of Allen­town (subsequently renamed Jim Thorpe). Yet he also made a series of oil sketches, watercolors, and large canvases of Mauch Chunk that closely represent the locale.

Throughout the forties Baum greatly varied his style in his substantial body of work, and with a wide range of quality. This variation in accomplishment would not have disturbed him. He painted for the love of it and viewed every effort as at least interesting, if not amusing. In fall 1941, Baum exhibited thirty paintings, all executed within the previous two years, at Philadelphia’s Penn Athletic Club. The diversity of themes caused one critic to comment that “Mr. Baum proves again he will not be ‘typed’ but can paint whatever he chooses and paint it well.”

Every Saturday morning from September to June, Baum and his wife Flora packed their car with art supplies and made the one-hour drive to Allen­town, north of their home in Sellersville. They made this trip every year for thirty years – from 1926 until Baum’s death in 1956. They kept a regular and treasured routine-one that created wonderful memories: the Baums would arrive at the school in Allentown around 8:45 AM. and start unpacking their car, which was crammed with canvases, boards, paper, frames, and a myriad of other items. Children and assistant instructors would be waiting for them. “The shuffle began with unloading the bulging Baum car of its contents,” it was reported. “Each child sought the favor of assisting this lovable man. Arms and hands laden with equip­ment, they excitedly filed through the nar­row doorway …. There was a rush for easels, chairs and positions …. Mrs. Baum’s battered pocketbooks, containing mysterious assortments of ail kinds, were carefully placed at her disposal. Dr. Baum’s enchanted smock was donned and Art School officially began! … The familiar smell of paint and turpentine filled the air.”

Beaver boards were shellacked by Mrs. Baum and cut to useful sizes; charcoal drawings were sprayed with a fixative. Baum visited each easel with a positive comment and placed an “A+” in the corner of the child’s effort. His smock, sandwich, and traditional hard-boiled egg became as colorful as the canvases. In the afternoon the adult class received his instruction, often outdoors in good weather.

Baum’s faith in the spread of art appreciation through collect­ing and studying original work had taken firm root in the school systems of the Lehigh Valley, as well as in Berks and Bucks Counties. Based on his earlier efforts in the 1930s, junior and senior high schools were building collections in the 1940s through artists’ contribu­tions and class gifts. Thanks to Baum’s help and encourage­ment, the Souderton High School and the Pennridge School District became the fore­runners of area schools that today have outstanding collec­tions. In 1949 the Bucks County collection was formally presented to the school system where it had been circulating for several years. The hope at the time was that a museum to house the collec­tion would be established, and that public schools built in the future would include art galleries. As a model of what every community could achieve, Baum pointed to the exhibitions in the hallways of the school where his Allentown classes met, as well as the Allentown Art Museum that he had helped found in 1934. “The possibilities of the high school art gallery,” he wrote, “if properly explored and ade­quately exploited, [are] so far-reaching that art in America may indeed be the common heritage of the masses.” He spent a lifetime putting into practice his belief that children raised to appreciate art and to know artists will in time become patrons of the arts themselves. And he encouraged everyone to become a collector.

I have often been asked “How will l know that a painting is good?” To which my reply invariably is “You can’t know, unless you’ve gone to look at good pictures a long time.” That is indeed the secret of all art apprecia­tion – becoming intimately familiar with works of art. We can teach children and grown-ups how to handle paint and brushes but unless we’ve shown them what is revealed through art then our efforts are feeble indeed.

Baum felt confident that great art was being produced around him and that a high price is not indicative of a work’s aesthetic quality. In an essay entitled “No Price Tag on Art,” he writes, “When I choose to buy a painting, I know that worthwhile things are to be had within the reach of the most ordinary people careful of their meagre budget.” In addi­tion to his collecting efforts on behalf of the public, Baum remained dedicated to his personal acquisitions, filling his home with work by European and American artists, from the impressionist period through that of his contemporaries.

Baum admired the giants of twentieth­-century art. But he was a traditional artist, now seeing more and more exhibition honors going to non-representational works. Through the years, his columns in The Philadelphia Evening and Sunday Bulletin reflected the ongoing struggle among artists over the increasingly domi­nant role of modern art in gallery and museum exhibitions. However, even though the early modernists like Arthur Dove and Jackson Pollock were shown in Philadelphia, the general public continued to support the naturalistic style of local and regional artists.

At age sixty-four Baum was not going to severely alter a lifetime of conservative preference in his own style. However, he chose a new subject matter and a change in the surface appearance of his canvases. Baum’s shift from landscape to an urban theme and from oil pigments to casein (a milk­based paint) can clearly be seen as an effort to update his artistic choices. Beginning in 1947, he submitted urban scenes, not landscapes, to the Pennsylvania Academy’s annual competitions.

The debut of his paintings of Manayunk, a small industrial community just north of Philadelphia, revealed works with a harder, dryer, and often light-reflective surface – quite different from Baum’s earlier works in oil. He painted them with a wide brush and deliber­ately left visible areas of bare, unprimed canvas. To leave untouched canvas on a finished painting would have been thought more “modern” in 1947 and even extreme to a traditionally trained artist like Baum. In 1945, Baum began to exhibit works in tempera on paper at the annual watercolor exhibi­tion at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. A tempera of Manayunk was first exhibited in 1946 and the town con­tinued to be a popular theme with Baum until 1953, when he exhibited a final winter view at the Academy.

During this time Baum was also paint­ing street scenes in Allentown, even replacing landscape themes with empha­sis on cityscape in his Saturday classes. Allentown was a large city compared to Manayunk, with taller buildings and crowded housing. Baum often worked from his car parked on a street and with Flora reading to him. He was working in the series method from his drawings, developing several compositions with variations. He freely altered the composi­tion to keep his inspiration fresh and to allow his imagination free rein. As in his landscapes, Baum was not as exact in recording a location as his audience would like to have believed.

Besides exchanging thematic ideas between actual and imaginary composi­tions, Baum liked to be painting on several different canvases over a period of time to keep his interest at its peak. In addition to city and country scenes, he kept rotating canvases of still life, portraiture, and figure painting. This routine, he said, enabled him “to work at top speed for most of the year.” Besides portraits of his family, his most frequent portraits were of himself; he promoted self-portraiture in class instruction because it provided an easily available model. Baum never considered himself a portrait painter, but he did encourage certain students in that direction profes­sionally. Portrait painting was a popular class on Saturdays and taught by differ­ent teachers through the years.

By 1952 Baum had been teaching in Allentown for twenty-six years in rooms provided by the school district. That year the Baum School of Art opened in its own building and offered classes on weekdays and evenings. At age sixty­-eight Baum was still actively pursuing his career as an artist, adding to the cur­riculum at the art school, and buying for the museum collection. Between 1950 and 1956, he won fourteen awards in various shows and embarked on another painting theme, studio still lifes, or “inte­riors” as Baum sometimes described them. His previous still lifes had been mostly small flower subjects and even those were few in number, but now he painted elaborate tabletop arrangements, often in rooms showing artists working at their easels. He must have been setting up such still-life arrangements for his students for years and the next step was to paint not only the still life but also its environment. Often he added wit to his interpretation of artists, both pupils and the instructors. Adoration of the Maestro (1952) is a strong example of Baum mak­ing fun of his own situation.

Baum was now referred to in newspa­per accounts as the “Dean of Bucks County Artists.” His long and respected career in this landscape school created a demand for retrospective showings of his work. In 1954, seventy-three paint­ings were shown at the Moore Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in Philadelphia. The exhibition covered fifty years of work, from 1904 through 1954, and demonstrated a great variety of themes. His longtime friend and art critic, Dorothy Grafly, reviewed the show. “His exhibition is, in fact, a picture story of changes inherent in the art expe­rience of a serious painter – changes that, in the aggregate, build maturity. He has nevertheless kept his art young and his hand alert, and what he paints today has more vitality than had his popular snowscapes of the 20’s and 30’s.”

Ultimately, the prolific Baum created thousands of works varying in size and importance. Although he could repeat a theme or even a style on request, he did not see his work as static, but as explor­ing new artistic challenges. He probably enjoyed surprising his audience by refus­ing to be typecast as a Pennsylvania impressionist landscape painter.

Baum died in his sleep at home in Sellersville on July 12, 1956. Percy Ruhe, a good friend, eulogized him in an editorial appearing the following day in The Morning Call of Allentown. “It is possible to say without fear of contradiction that the largest single force and influence in making Allentown an art center of great importance was and is the Baum Art School.” Ruhe cited thirty years of teach­ing, two thousand students, the collect­ing of art through the Circulating Picture Club and the Lehigh Art Alliance, and finally the museum.. “Under Dr. Batim’s influence the Allentown Art Museum was established and practically all the Museum’s possessions stem from him directly or indirectly.” The final issue of the Baum Art School’s annual report was an accolade of love and admiration from only a few of the many people whose lives were enriched by knowing this unique man.

Walter Baum’s love of people made it possible for him to lead them with enthusiasm and generosity of spirit through decades of creativity both per­sonally and for the good of their com­munities. His soft voice, mild manner, and slight physical presence belied a strength of will and purpose that could not be discouraged from accomplishing impossible goals. He achieved for himself and others dreams that still exist today. He left behind a wonderful her­itage of paintings that record the land of his forebears. His importance as a Bucks County landscape artist is assured in the quality of his best work and in his amaz­ing productivity. To say that he made a difference in his time is only the begin­ning of appreciating his accompLish­ments. His legacy continues today in the success of the Baum School of Art and the Allentown Art Museum in addition to the popularity of his art with so many collectors.

 

For Further Reading

Baum, Walter Emerson. Two Hundred Years. Sellersville, Pa.: The Sellersville Herald, 1938.

Folk, Thomas. Walter Elmer Schofield: Bold Impressionist. Chadds Ford, Pa.: Brandywine River Museum, 1983.

Foster, Kathleen A. Daniel Garber, 1880-1958. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1980.

Gerdts, William H. American Impressionism. New York: Abbeyville Press, 1984.

Hutson-Saxton, Martha. Walter Emerson Baum, 1884-1956, Pennsylvania Artist and Founder of the Baum School of Art and Allentown Art Museum. Souderton, Pa.: Indian Valley Printing Company, 1996.

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

Winer, Donald A. Retrospective Exhibition of the Work of the Great American Impressionist Edward Willis Redfield of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: William Penn Memorial Museum, 1973.

 

Martha Hutson-Saxton is the author of George Henry Durrie (1820-1863), American Winter Landscapist Renowned Through Currier and Ives (1978), the first study of American winter landscape painting in the nineteenth century. From 1974 to 1977 she served as editor of American Art Review, where size has continued as contributing edi­tor. She received her undergraduate degree from Mills College and her doctorate from Harvard University. The author has served as guest curator at the Allentown Art Museum and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.