American Art

Edith Halpert – The Unsung Hero of American Art

By Charlotte Mitchell

W hile the name Edith Halpert may not resonate with the everyone, the names of the artists she championed throughout her forty-two-year career – Stuart Davis, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Charles Sheeler, among others – certainly do. Presented by the Jewish Museum, Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art was the first exhibition to illuminate the remarkable career of Edith Halpert along with her countless contributions to the development of American art.

Born in Odessa, Russia, Halpert immigrated to New York in 1905 and founded the Downtown Gallery in 1926 at the age of twenty-six. Housed in a townhouse in bohemian Greenwich Village, the Downtown Gallery was vastly different from the city’s established art galleries located further uptown. Instead of showing the work of Old Masters painters and the European avant-garde, Halpert set out to promote strictly American artists, many of whom were living and working in the gallery’s surrounding neighborhood.

· Edith Halpert at the Downtown Gallery, wearing the 13 watch brooch and ring designed for her by Charles Sheeler, in a photograph for Life magazine in 1952. She is joined by some of the new American artists she was promoting that year: Charles Oscar, Robert Knipschild, Jonah Kinigstein, Wallace Reiss, Carroll Cloar, and Herbert Katzman. Photograph © Estate of Louis Faurer Photograph © Estate of Louis Faurer"

Celebrated today as the country’s first female art dealer, Halpert transformed the way Americans understood, purchased and lived with art. She believed that art should be enjoyed by and available to everyone, not just the elite, and introduced creative strategies including end of season sales and interest free payment plans to make this possible. She frequently supported artists from diverse backgrounds, including women, African Americans, immigrants and others who had not previously been afforded opportunities. Many of these artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Jacob Lawrence went on to become icons of American modernism. In addition to promoting living artists, Halpert looked to the country’s past and revitalized the market for American folk art and overlooked nineteenth century painters such as William Harnett and Raphaelle Peale. She created a distinctly American style by showing that a modernist painting could be exhibited next to a weathervane – a technique that curators emulated in Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art.

Halpert’s achievements are perhaps best summarized by Lithuanian-born William Zorach, one of the artists s achievements are perhaps best summarized by Lithuanian-born William Zorach, one of the artists on her roster: “Edith Halpert was always full of ideas and projects. She didn’t have to depend on anyone. She did not follow in the footsteps of others; she did not take the easy way of promoting and selling European art where the path was clear and well-trodden. She set out to promote American art because she believed in it and realized that if this country was ever to have an American art it had to come out of American artists…This she made her goal and she has stuck to it with a single-minded devotion. American art owes her a great debt.”

Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art featured approximately 100 works of American modern and folk art that passed through the Downtown Gallery along with highlights from Halpert’s personal collection – reunited for the first time since its historic sale in 1973. While this exceptional exhibition concluded on February 9th, you can still purchase a copy of the accompanying catalogue from the bookstore at The Jewish Museum (1109 5th Avenue).

LEAD IMAGE: Installation view of the exhibition Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art, October 18, 2019-February 9, 2020, The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo by Jason Mandella

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