Theresa Bernstein liked to paint people who are absorbed in something — music, worship or a game of chess.
“Music Lover,” for example, depicts a woman tilting her head as she listens to a performance. We can’t see her eyes, which are shaded and may be closed or simply staring into space as she focuses inwardly. But her hands express concentration, the right clutching a bag at her side, while the left settles on the back of a chair, its white glove glowing at the center of the canvas.
The painting is part of an exhibit, “Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art,” now at Endicott College, that aims to inspire that same kind of close attention to this neglected American artist.
The title refers to the fact that Bernstein, who lived until two weeks before her 112th birthday in 2002, exhibited her art in every decade of the 20th century. But the show, which includes 44 works, draws mostly from the first two decades of that long career.
“I emphasize the early years, when she was most famous, because I wanted to revive her reputation,” said Gail Levin, who teaches art history at the City University of New York and organized the exhibit.
Bernstein, who was born in Poland in 1890, attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women from 1907 to 1911. She moved to New York in 1912, and by 1913 was starting to exhibit at the MacDowell Club, often with artists of the Ashcan School such as John Sloan and Robert Henri.
Bernstein had affinities with this group, which used a dark palette to capture scenes of urban life, and preferred their work to the radical experiments she saw at the Armory Show of 1913.
“Ashcan school realism is a kind of modernism,” Levin said. “It’s no longer myths and prettified subject matter.”
But as art historian Elsie Heung points out, in a book that accompanies this exhibit, there are important differences between Bernstein’s art and that of the Ashcan School. She didn’t train as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines, as the Ashcan artists did, and her paintings are more formal than the rapid compositions they produced.