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

Jane Piper (1916-1991), recognized by colleagues and critics alike as one of Philadelphia’s foremost painters and teachers, enjoyed a career that spanned fifty years and included thirty-five solo shows. Her works, mostly still lifes, combined figurative and abstract elements. She has been described as an “instinctive individualist,” and her independent spirit characterized her art, education, approach to teaching, and personal life. She was deeply committed to her painting and teaching. “My primary interest [in making a painting],” she once said, “is to find a form that allows for the possibility of an expression of joy because, for me, art is about giving pleasure.”

Piper was born in Philadelphia, the daughter of a physician. When her family vacationed at a resort in rural France, nine-year-old Jane observed with fascination an elderly woman who painted watercolor landscapes and gave her a sable brush.

At fifteen Jane studies with Grace Thorp Gemberling (1903-1997), a young artist who taught still life and figure painting at her studio in Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County. Gemberling was a former student of Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952), an innovator in the use of colors and an extremely popular teacher in Philadelphia. He later became a major influence on Piper.

It wasn’t, however, until Piper saw the 1934 retrospective exhibition of paintings by Hugh Henry Breckenridge (1870-1937) at the Pennsylvania Acade­my of the Fine Arts that she decided to make art her life’s career. This was her first encounter with modern art. When interviewed in 1978, she remembered Breckenridge’s works as “huge paintings of masses of bright color,” and conclud­ed that “I thought they were terrific, and I wanted to go to the Academy [where he taught] and experience this.”

Her father opposed her desire to study art, arguing that women should only be creative by having children. She was determined to undertake studies, and his death in 1935 cleared the way for her to attend classes at the Academy that fall. At the Academy, however, she was not allowed to sign up for Breckenridge’s course before first completing a drawing class where, every day for a year, she made renderings from antique plaster casts using pencil or charcoal. Daniel Garber (1880-1958) was her teacher and, unfortunately, they developed a mutual dislike for one another. The following spring, when he took the drawing she was working on from her easel and tore it to pieces in front of the class, she left the Academy without even meeting Breckenridge or ever picking up a paintbrush.

Piper then studied privately with painter Earl Horter (1880-1940), in his home on Delancey Street. Moy Glidden, who had also studied with Grace Gemberling but hadn’t met Piper until they were both in Garber’s class at the Academy, left the Academy the follow­ing year and followed Piper to Horter’s studio. Glidden remembered that she and Piper “roamed all over the house together,” inspecting Horter’s avant­-garde art collection, which included Muse, a polished bronze by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), and numerous cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963). The pair also pored through Horter’s vast library of monographs and exhibi­tion catalogs of works by contemporary artists. “It was a paradise for any student,” remembered Glidden.

At Horter’s they met fellow artists, including Franklin C. Watkins (1894-1972) and his teacher, Arthur B. Carles. From time to time, both men stopped by Horter’s and, Glidden recalled, on those occasions Watkins, but not Carles, would talk with both students about their paintings.

Perhaps most importantly, Herter arranged for them to visit the Barnes Foundation in nearby Merion, Mont­gomery County. The Philadelphia Museum of Art in its present building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway had been open just ten years and was in the process of acquiring The Large Bathers, only the second painting by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) to enter its collec­tion. The museum owned no paintings by Henri Matisse (1869-1954). At the Barnes, however, Piper and Glidden were able to see several dozen paintings by Matisse and about as many by Cezanne. Piper later mused about her first visit to the Barnes, recalling, “I didn’t know that such paintings existed. … When I saw the Matisses I didn’t know what hit me and [it] threw me into a whole new emotional world of color and feeling.”

Jane Piper and Moy Glidden later studied at the Barnes Foundation, but Piper was expelled from the classes, in 1938, for breaking one of the founda­tion’s many rules. A few weeks later, disguised in sunglasses and a scarf, she sneaked back in to see several Matisse paintings Glidden had told her that Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) had recently acguired. Recognized by the staff, she was Literally chased out of the building. The next morning, she received a special delivery letter from Dr. Barnes forbid­ding her to ever again set foot on his property. It wasn’t until the early 1960s, when the Barnes Foundation was finally opened to the public, that Piper was allowed to return. “I still feel,” she later said, “some of that power whenever I go back to the Barnes [and] I always linger over the Cezannes and the Matisses.”

Piper and Glidden shared a studio on Delancey Street. Later, they traveled together to St. Croix, in the United States Virgin Islands, where they painted landscapes and, to enhance their renderings, hired a woman worker from the local market to pose for them. Piper also sailed to Paris where she briefly continued her studies before returning to Philadelphia, but she was unhappy and on the verge of quitting painting altogether. “I could paint landscapes, clouds, trees, and bottles,” she remem­bered, “but why I was doing it did not make any sense.” At Horter’s urging, shortly before his death in March 1940, Piper and Glidden went to study with Carles in his Chestnut Street studio The fifty-seven-year-old Carles was legendary in Philadelphia. A 1907 graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he had lived in Paris where he had known Matisse and many of the leaders of the French avant-garde. Beginning in 1917, he had taught a popular “Saturday morning costume sketch class” at the Academy. “The conflict between the ‘academic’ and the ‘modern,’ which at that time divided the Academy into two hostile camps,” Julian Levi (1900-1982), another Carles student, wrote, “utterly mystified me. My choice, for it was necessary to make an orienta­tion, was on the side of the ‘moderns’ … On the one hand was sterility and stubborn adherence to outmoded forms and a turning away from life, whereas on the other, I found a vigorous and progressive attitude towards life and paradoxically, a truer feeling for tradition.”

During the first half of twentieth­-century, Arthur B. Carles was as vital and influential a presence in the cultural life of his native Philadelphia as Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) had been a generation earlier. Arguably the greatest colorist in American art, he was, as one critic has opined, “one of the founders of the Abstract Expressionist movement.” Yet, until recently, Carles has remained unknown to younger generations and has been virtually forgotten by painters and neglected by art historians. His paintings are rarely exhibited, even in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Acade­my of the Fine Arts, the two institutions that own the largest collections of his works. Carles epitomized every­thing modern and everything French, and his “uninhibited behavior and his flaunting of conven­tion” made him persona non grata to the increasingly conservative adminis­tration of the Academy. After several warnings, he was fired in 1925. Several of his devoted students – including Julian Levi, Quita Brodhead, and Betty W. Hubbard – left the Academy to study privately with him.

Fifteen years later, when Piper and Glidden came to Carles, he was still teaching several classes, even though his health had deteriorated from habitual heavy drinking. When Piper first started training with him, she Later recalled, she painted “a still life of an orange pump­kin on a harlequin jacket in the middle of [Carles’ studio]. I tried to paint the fullness and weight of the pumpkin on the brilliant-colored, triangular pattern of the jacket. The more I painted the pumpkin orange,” she said, “the flatter it got. It just didn’t look like anything until, out of rage and frustration, I put a big cobalt blue spot in the middle of it. All of a sudden it took on a sense of volume and form. It began to work as a painting and to describe what I was feeling about the setup. Then Carles started to talk to me, but until that gesture of rage and frustration he ignored me. I realized then that one makes an awful lot of important jumps in life out of frustration, not out of assurance.”

When German painter Hans Hof­mann (1880-1966) came to the United States, Piper once recalled, “Carles and Hofmann understood each other very well [and Hofmann] said that Carles was the greatest living American painter.” In the summer of 1941, Carles sent Piper and Glidden to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Hofmann was teaching. Piper later recalled that Hofmann “put up still lifes that were exciting but made no logical sense except that they were constructed organizationally. I could have learned much more from him than I did, but I thought Carles had said it all in simpler terms.” Today, Glidden agrees with Piper’s assessment, adding, “Hofmann was flattered Carles had sent two of his students to him,” but she, too, ultimately was disappointed because “every time he would criticize our works he would gather the other students around and only talk about Carles.” Not long after completing Hofmann’s class, Glidden married and left Philadel­phia, but Piper continued to work under Carles’ tutelage. A coronary stroke, however, in December 1941, ended Carles’ career as an artist and teacher. Piper continued to pay the rent on his Chestnut Street studio, and she painted there for another year or so. She visited her incapacitated mentor, whom she knew had helped her in immeasurable ways, and her first solo exhibition, in 1943, at Philadelphia’s esteemed Robert Carlen Gallery, was due largely to Carles’ influence. Piper later reflected that Carles had “thought it was extremely important for me to show [and] to see my work all together on the wall in order to get a picture-image of what I thought I was doing.”

With Carles ill, Piper’s exhibition symbolized the transference of his ideas­ to a new generation. One of his older students, Morris Blackburn (1902-1979), recognized the importance of Piper’s work and wrote an appreciation of her still life abstractions, which was posted in the gallery. The critics were not so kind.

Piper painted and drew ail her life from still life and landscape. As early as the 1943 exhibition at the Robert Carlen Gallery, her progression toward abstract representation was noted by one critic, who wrote, “The only needful warning in regard to most of these pictures is not to look for a definite depiction of any special object. To be sure it is rather late in the day to give such a warning, for art of this character has been widely accepted and in some quarters it is beginning to appear even old­-fashioned.”

At about the time of Carles’ death, in 1952, her work was growing increasingly abstract, and she unexpectedly started using white as the dominant color of her palette. Disgusted by a painting on her easel, she attacked it with a large brush loaded with the white house paint she was using to paint her studio walls, after which she used white in nearly all of her paintings because, she said, she liked “the spatial sense of brilliance” it brought to her other colors. One of these early abstractions, Study in Red, was purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for its permanent collection in 1954. “I try to create order almost by cutting out, with white, a part of the chaos I create,” she said in 1978. “I use white because I’m involved with a spatial sensation and a spatial sense of brilliance – of flight.”

In 1954, she began teaching when an older student of Carles, Morris Black­burn (1902-1979), turned one of his classes over to her, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1986. About teaching she said (somewhat echoing her first experience with Carles), “I relate to the students one to one. I try to wait until they’ve done something, and then I talk to them about what they’ve done. I think they get much more from the setups or from looking at other paintings than they do from a lecture.”

“There are,” she continued, “some very talented students [but] I find I’m looking more for a kind of person [who] will be a painter rather than just talent. They have to sustain something alone. You must be able to tolerate yourself for long periods of time, working in the isolation of a studio.”

It was her willingness to speak of her anger, frustration and, ultimately, the joy and excitement of painting that drew students and many colleagues to her. She was unrelenting in her belief that painting is a terribly important thing to do. Piper was married with two daugh­ters, and when one of her former students had children, she warned her to spend at least one hour per day in her studio and to keep the door locked. Even if she could only spend the hour sleeping behind a locked door, Piper advised, it was necessary that she and her children all accept that the time in her studio must be uninterrupted. Perhaps, more than anything else, Piper imparted to her students her belief in the importance to keep painting. Recalling that she had been on the verge of abandoning painting alto­gether before she met Carles, she tried to give her own students the same vital wonderment for painting that Carles had inspired in her. “Other people seem to be able to rest,” she wrote, “but [Carles] didn’t have the ability to rest within himself. He seemed to have to move all the time. Pushing the limits of his own understanding and perception, exploring areas that had never been touched before, he always seemed, to me, to be more aware than most people of his own visual, sensual responses to his environment. Because of Carles, I felt a real change in my whole life.”

One of her earliest students, Karen Segal, recalled: “Jane Piper … taught me to see, rather than how to paint. [She] spoke about color creating form and space [and for Jane] the spaces between the forms were as important in the development of the picture as the forms. When you change one relationship [in a painting, everything changes. Jane was the only teacher who ever spoke to me Like that about painting.”


For Further Reading

Baltzell, E. Digby, and Bill Scott. The Art of Jane Piper. Philadelphia: Woodmere Art Museum, 1995.

Scott, Bill. “Continuity and Change: Conversations with Jane Piper.” American Artist, November 1978.

Shoemaker, Innis Howe, Christa Clarke, and William Wierzbowski. Mad For Modernism: Earl Horter and His Collection. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1999.

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 Boesse. Arthur B. Carles, 1882-1952: Painting with Color. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1983.

____. The Orchestration of Color: The Paintings of Arthur B. Carles. New York: Hollis Taggart Galleries, 2000.


Bill Scott, a Philadelphia painter, is a former student of Jane Piper’s. His works of art have been added to the permanent collections of several institutions, among them The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, where he studied. He is represented by Philadelphia’s Mangel Gallery. The author’s articles and reviews have appeared in various magazines, including Art in America, for which he serves as a corresponding editor. He is guest curator of “Jane Piper and Her Circle: Three Generations of Painters in Philadelphia,” on view at The State Museum from Saturday, November 4, 2000, through Sunday, January 14, 2001.