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

I’ve been through a great many phases of painting that certainly don’t resemble each other,” says painter Quita Brodhead. “It always worries me to think that perhaps I was just skipping around and jumping, but when you really look at my paintings, there is a thread of continuity that goes through them all. I developed along that thread.” This spring, Quita Brodhead celebrated her one-hundredth birthday, and to mark the milestone, Hollis Taggart Galleries in Manhattan organized a retrospective exhibition, “Quita Brodhead: Celebrating a Century,” with the artist’s assistance, which opened on Monday, March 5, her birthday. An exhibition entitled “Quita Brodhead: Paintings, 1920-2001,” will be shown at the painter’s alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAPA), from Friday, June 29, through Sunday, July 22 [2001]. Brod­head will be awarded the prestigious Percy Owens Award, given annually to a distinguished Pennsylvania artist by the Fellowship of the Pennsylvania Academy.

During her eighty-year-career as an artist, Quita Brodhead has produced a body of work that begins with represen­tational portraiture and continues into abstract imagery, which she now paints. She is insatiably curious and inquisitive, and has lived and painted in Rome, Paris, and Tenerife, as well as at artists colonies in the United States. She relishes the opportunity to work at places such as the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, in Sweetbriar, Virginia, where she is inspired by the interaction with other artists, writers, and musicians. Looking back on her work, she feels she has often been more productive – and even prone to make breakthroughs – when given the chance to paint away from her Wayne, Delaware County, home. No matter where she has worked, and whether or not she paints to critical accolades or on the brink of obscurity, she has steadfastly followed her own path, punctuated by experimentation and daring, that has been for her art and for her art alone.

Quita Brodhead was born Marie Waggaman Berl, on March 5, 1901, in Wilmington, Delaware, to Marie Waggaman and William Berl. Her mother’s family came from New Orleans and her father worked as a surveyor for railroad companies and, later in his life, was paymaster for the Illinois Central Railroad. (It was from her father that she derived her unusual first name; he called her Mariequita, meaning “little Marie” in Spanish, which the family shortened to “Quitte.” As an adult, she adopted Quita.) When she was fourteen, one of her teachers took Brodhead and her class outside once a week to paint landscapes. “That was just something to do in the summer,” she remembers. “In those days, I was much more interested in horses than in painting. I had no inkling then that I would become a painter.”

In autumn 1919, she enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her first year, in the antique class taught by Daniel Garber (1880-1958), proved grueling. She recalls that beginners drew in charcoal, from white plaster casts of antique sculpture and busts of Socrates and Julius Caesar, until they were considered sufficiently advanced to graduate to painting. She found Garber’s drawings so sharply delineated that she felt “he may as well have drawn them with a razor blade.” She believes Garber must have considered her drawings to be “awfully smudgy” and that, she now realizes, did not help their relationship. She also attended Joseph T. Pearson’s life class, occasionally taught by impression­ist painter Robert Vonnoh (1858-1933) of Boston, where she painted from nude models. The Pennsylvania Academy conducted a summer program in Chester Springs, thirty miles west of Philadel­phia, where she also painted. Brodhead recalls that landscape painter Fred Wagner acted more as “a chaperone to the students than as an instructor.”

Brodhead was far more inspired by three modernist painters who taught at the Pennsylvania Academy and soon gravitated to their classes. Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952), whose popular Saturday morning costume sketch class Brodhead regularly attended, would become her mentor. Henry McCarter, who had worked in Paris with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, introduced his young students to the works of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Hugh Breckenridge taught portrait painting. “Everybody [at the Academy usually] worked together in the same room,” Brodhead recalls. “It was interesting, for me, to see how many different opinions there were of the same model. I found it quite revealing – a feeling of diversity – [that] everybody doesn’t have to [paint the same model in] the same way.”

To expand her studies, she spent the summers of 1923 and 1924 in Paris and traveling in Europe. She had seen paintings by Amedeo Modigliani, Matisse, and Picasso in spring 1923, when Carles persuaded the Pennsylvania Academy to exhibit seventy-five works recently acquired by contentious collector Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), founder of the Barnes Foundation in Merion. In Europe, she did not go out of her way to see any more avant-garde works but went, instead, to Paris to see tapestries at the Cluny Museum and spend many days in the Louvre. She also recalls seeing Gertrude Stein’s brother, Leo (about whom Carles had told her), walking through his neighborhood clad in a toga and sandals.

Brodhead enrolled at two art acade­mies in Paris, where she enjoyed meeting fellow students, who had come from many other parts of Europe. Both schools offered informal atmospheres and she was able to work independently without seeking instruction. Because it was so cumbersome to carry her art supplies from place to place, she painted in gouache on paper. Brodhead also remembers that the nude models, both male and female, who took only one ten­-minute break each hour, shivered as they posed in drafty, unheated studios. Returning to Philadelphia, she left the Pennsylvania Academy in 1925, when Carles was fired from its teaching staff. She and a group of his devoted students followed him to a West Philadelphia studio where they continued to study with him for a short time. “What [Carles] had to say was all so new,” Brodhead has written, “it involved philosophy and theory so different from what we were raised on, which made it more difficult for him to articulate and harder for us to grasp. Yet nebulous as it was, it touched down and hit solid ground often enough for us to feel our way along.”

After painting for several more years, she says, “I felt I needed more form in my paintings and I was sure a sculptor was the person to go to.” In 1927, she studied with sculptor Alexander Archipenko, at his studio in Woodstock, New York, but remembers her disap­pointment. “He taught form as solid form, but that’s not what a painter wants. The painter wants to create the illusion of form. It was a very good experience but I learned something very different than what I had expected to get from him.”

When she was twenty-eight, she was commissioned to paint murals for the choir, both sides of the chancel, and an overhead arch at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bala Cynwyd, west of Philadelphia, in Montgomery County. Brodhead began painting in May 1929, two months after the birth of her first child, Edith, and continued working fulltime, every day, through October. Her murals were discussed and illustrat­ed in articles that appeared at the end of the year in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Bulletin. After sustaining water damage several years later, the church decided to paint over the murals, rather than conserve them, and they are known now only from a few early photographs.

Brodhead’s career was on the upswing, prompting one Philadelphia critic to call her “an ambitious young artist.” In 1930, she was one of the original founders of the Wayne Art Center and, four years later, held her first solo exhibition at what is now known as the Main Line Art Center in Haverford. That was followed, while she was still in her thirties, by three success­ful solo exhibitions in New York and a show in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long before Carles began to affectionately address Brodhead as his “fellow exhibiting machine.” Her work was often identified with his and there were moments when she worried that his influence on her might be too great. “Carles never told you what to do,” she says, “nor did he really have a school, but I continued to be recognized as his protege because of my use of color.” She remembers Caries’s amusement when she confided her fear to him, and that he happily replied, ” Well, you might as well be influenced by someone good.”

Shortly after her first show, in 1938, she designed a house in Wayne in which she continues to live. She paints in a small, North-lit, second-floor studio that is attached to the house but was built with a private entrance above the garage. She designed the studio to be separate from the flow of her daily activities, and to deter her husband and three children from interrupting her while she worked. It was to this studio that Carles occasionally came to see her newest work and to offer criticism and advice. “I always knew he was a terrific painter and I always marveled at the way he taught,” she says. “Now I realize what a wonderful person he was. He was generous in his attitude. He wanted you to be just as good as he, but in your own way.”

Arthur B. Carles is known to have taught more than one hundred students, several of who became influential teachers. In addition to Jane Piper (1916-1991), who taught at the Philadelphia College of Art until 1985, his best-known student was Morris Blackburn (1902-1979), who taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts until his death. Piper and Blackburn were primarily responsible for bringing Carles and his work to the attention of a younger generation of artists who studied in Philadelphia. Brodhead taught private painting classes for several years in her studio and later taught art appreciation. However, she was known to younger artists primarily through exhibitions of her work, as well as for her involvement with art organizations, among them the Wayne Art Center and the Fellowship of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Piper’s death left Brodhead virtually the sole survivor of the commu­nity of Philadelphia colorist painters who had studied with Carles (see “The World of Jane Piper,” by Bill Scott, Fall 2000).

Brodhead included portraits of her young daughter, Edith, who often posed for her, in many exhibitions. In an attempt to raise money after her divorce in 1953 from Truxtun Brodhead, a steel salesman whom she married in 1927, she returned to portraiture. She painted several of her friends and the child of another artist. Brodhead exhibited these works in the hope of attracting commis­sions, in a private exhibition held early in 1954 at the Wilmington home of her brother, Colonel E. Ennalls Berl. She had exhibited several of these portraits in May of the previous year in one of her few solo exhibitions at a commercial gallery in Philadelphia. She was already recognized as an abstractionist and was able, as some critics noted, to merge this interest with the more conservative confines of portraiture. “Mrs. Brodhead,” one critic wrote, “is not afraid of planes or blocking – in, yet she achieves an alert life-present likeness of her sitters, in which flesh and spirit seem to mingle.”

Several of these portraits hang in Brodhead’s dining room, interspersed with several of her abstractions and a few works by other artists, including a painting by Carles, Still Life with Fruit. The painting was a gift from the artist, in 1939, when she helped prepare and hang a show of his work. There is also a still life drawing by Jane Piper and an abstraction by Moy Glidden, an artist who had also studied with Carles. On her mantle are several small sculptures, among them a bronze crucifix by a Philadelphia artist, whose sinewy abstract form Brodhead appropriated in her largest canvas, Crucifixion, which measured six by nine feet. Painted in 1940-1941, in memory of her brother Floyd Berl, its brilliant color and juxtaposition of large shapes anticipated much of her abstract imagery. Shortly after it was painted, the painting was returned to the artist by the Wilmington church for which it was painted. The painting was later destroyed by fire and survives onJy in a black and white photograph and two small oil studies.

In front of a mirror by a sideboard, stand a fruit compote and a large white, um-like vase that are familiar from her early still life compositions. The vase is often filled with flowers, including scarlet salvia, which grows just outside and whose saturated red sometimes still appears as small fragments in her paintings. Two majestic ash trees grow in Brodhead’s front yard and a forty-five year old quince tree provides shade over her brick-paved terrace. Brodhead explains that she chose to plant the quince there because its ripe fruit are the only ones that do not burst when falling onto the bricks below. So it is with her color. Her forms hang suspended or butt up against one another, but no color ever crushes the other. It is a continuaJ act of balance and proportion in which she always leaves room for air.

Brodhead cites works by Joan Miro, Mark Rothko, Picasso, and Matisse important to her development as a painter. She speaks admiringly of works by Australian Aborigines, to which she was introduced while she lived in Paris and painted in a studio on the rue de Seine in 1961 and 1962. In Paris she met Karel Kupka, who had just written a book about this little known art, Un Art a l’Etat Brut. Brodhead’s interests encom­pass many different subjects including mathematics, science, and space travel, and one compliment that especially pleased her, she recalls, wasn’t from anyone in the art world, but was offered by a physicist who told her that one of her paintings of calla lilies looked like
“the inside of an atom.”

By the mid-1940s, Brodhead’s work was growing more and more abstract. It appears that her goal, whether conscious or subconscious, may always have been to reduce her visual world into simpli­fied abstracted forms. By 1960, when she painted in the Canary Islands, she was a completely abstract artist. She was inspired by the unusual landscape and its dark, resonant colors and she painted what she now considers to be some of her strongest work. “The Canary Islands had,” she remembers, “black beaches, black crags standing out to sea, terrific sea pounding down on the crag; it’s really a crude part of nature. It’s nature in the raw and even the cloud formations are different. They have real definition [as if] they’re real things.”

While living in the Canary Islands, Brodhead met one of her staunchest supporters, writer and collector Eduardo Westerdahl. He owned two of her paintings and included her work in several exhibitions he organized at the museum in Tenerife, where her paintings hung alongside works by Hans Arp, Wassily Kandinsky, Man Ray, and Antonio Tapies, among others. Wester­dahl also wrote a lengthy appreciation of her work in which he claimed Brodhead had received “the most advantageous academic teaching that an artist could acquire. All this shapes the basis of her present concept, in which there is no trace of improvisation, but a definite professional knowledge … In the work done in Tenerife, a significant transfor­mation takes place. The palette changes … Quita Brodhead feels the impact of the great loneliness of the Canary Islands: the influence of the volcano, of the rocks of the mountains’ violet shade, the deep silence of distorted ravines, the unusual sunset colors and the bitter strength of nature.” Brodhead enjoys Westerdahl’s review of her work and teasingly says, “Every time I’m depressed I read it.”

When she was young, no one in her family took her seriously as an artist. At the time of her first show in New York, her brother Ennals asked a friend in New York to see her exhibition so that he could report back as to whether or not she “was really any good.” “That,” Brodhead says, “was the attitude of the whole family. I painted. That was it.” Had she not met Carles, she believes, she would not have continued to paint. “Painting was his life,” she says, “and he somehow was able to breathe some of it into me.”

Brodhead is writing her memoirs and has recently painted several series of abstractions. She has titled the new paintings Whence and Where To, Chaos, and The Endless Circle. Of these works, art historian Barbara Ann Boese Wolanin has written, “A recurring form in Quita Brodhead’s paintings is the spiral. An ancient symbol in art, it is a basic form in nature, the mark of growth of a shell or plant as well as movement in the solar system. It is also an apt graph of her painting life in the way she has dealt with basic principles from different levels and viewpoints, never returning exactly back to an earlier mode of expression but building on what she has done before.”

In speaking of her newest paintings, Brodhead says, “Today we are faced with new horizons, new dimensions, new unknowns … In this milieu, as an abstract painter, I am trying to establish how this form of painting relates to these seem­ingly kaleidoscopic changes.” As she heads back into her studio, she matter-­of-factly adds, “I am always interested in the next surge of things to come.”


For Further Reading

Greenfield, Howard. The Devil and Dr. Barnes: Portrait of an American Art Collection. New York: Viking Press, 1987.

Kupka, Karel. Un Art a l’Etat Brut. Lausanne, Switzerland: La Guilde du Livre, 1962.

Scott, Bill. Jane Piper and Her Circle: Three Generations of Painters in Philadelphia. Harrisburg: The State Museum of Pennsylva­nia, 2000.

Wattenmaker, Richard J., et al. Great French Paintings From The Barnes Foundation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf in association with Lincoln University Press, 1993.

Wolanin, Barbara Ann Boese. The Orches­tration of Color: The Paintings of Arthur B. Carles. New York: Hollis Taggart Galleries, 2000.

Wolanin, Barbara Ann Boese, and Bill Scott. Quita Brodhead: Celebrating a Century. New York: Hollis Taggart Galleries, 2001.


Bill Scott is a painter who lives in Philadel­phia. His work was exhibited in a two-artist show in 1992 at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. He exhibits his work in Philadelphia at the Mangel Gallery. The author is a corresponding editor for Art in America and wrote “The World of Jane Piper,” which appeared in the Fall 2000 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage. He helped organize the retrospective of Quita Brodhead’s paintings and wrote an essay, upon which this article is based, for the accompanying exhibition catalogue.