Artist to Know: Martha Walter

Liz Catalano
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Morphy Auctions to Offer Works from Philadelphia Impressionist

A successful American Impressionist from Philadelphia, Martha Walter spent her 20s under the tutelage of William Merritt Chase. He encouraged her to pursue art seriously and connected the budding artist to the international art scene. Though his influence is visible in much of Walter’s work, she also grew her own variant of Impressionism that remained grounded in the reality of early 20th-century America.

Offered on the first day of the upcoming Fine & Decorative Arts sale, presented by Morphy Auctions, are five works from Walter. Representing work from her travels to Tennessee, Europe, and her own backyard, these pieces will be offered at 10:00 AM EDT on July 14, 2020. Get to know Martha Walter’s work before the sale begins. 

William Merritt Chase, Portrait of Martha Walter, 1908. Image from WikiArt.
William Merritt Chase, Portrait of Martha Walter, 1908. Image from WikiArt. 

Walter received extensive art training at an early age, benefitting from her experiences at the Pennsylvania Museum & School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts. It was at the latter institution that she encountered Chase, who would become her mentor and teacher for the next several years. At his insistence, she began applying for prizes and scholarships for her work, going on to win the Toppan prize in 1902 and a Cresson Scholarship for international study a year later. 

From the start of her career, Walter counted herself among the American Impressionists. This group began following the new French painting style near the end of the 19th century. Walter and many other Americans built on the lightness of French Impressionist works, combining the European style with images of American culture. As her career advanced, Walter began to focus her paintings on recognizable themes, including children in sunlight, women with their families, and beach scenes on the American coast. 

Despite her close association with Chase, Walter deviated from his more classical style to develop her own. She was one of the few American Impressionists to use the color black in her paintings, a risk that could disrupt the emphasis on lightness and pure sensation. It was a success, however: “She is not afraid of colour, ” wrote Helen L. Slack in the 1914 spring edition of The International Studio, “but uses it in every possible combination, until her paintings have the veritable beauty of a Persian rug.”

Martha Walter, Portrait of a Mother and Daughter with Her Doll, c. 1940. Image from Morphy Auctions.
Martha Walter, Portrait of a Mother and Daughter with Her Doll, c. 1940. Image from Morphy Auctions.

Walter traveled often to determine her subject matter. Between 1908 and 1910, she studied and painted in France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. She set up her own studio in Paris with fellow American women artists before returning home a few years later. The following decades marked Walter’s growing commercial success, allowing her later travels through both North Africa and New England. 

Some of her most notable works came from Tennessee, however, where she tried to reconcile the childhood innocence in her works with the poverty she encountered. Walter’s portraits of newly-arrived immigrants at Ellis Island also stand in high contrast to her more lighthearted paintings. 

Walter lived to the age of 101 before passing away in 1976. She continued to work as an Impressionist throughout the 20th century, despite the changing artistic styles that developed after World War I. The upcoming Morphy’s Auctions sale will see five works from Walter cross the auction block, each likely painted in the 1940s. Leading the lots is Portrait of a Mother and Daughter with Her Doll, a signed oil on canvas piece. A young girl holding her doll gazes at the viewer against a leafy background. Her mother is shown sewing a piece of yellow fabric. With a starting estimate of USD 6,000 to $18,000, bidding for this painting will begin at $3,000.

Martha Walter, Pink Umbrella. Image from Christie’s.
Martha Walter, Pink Umbrella. Image from Christie’s.

Walter’s lengthy career and notable place in American Impressionism has created sustained interest in her work. A 2008 Christie’s auction sold her Pink Umbrella painting for $266,500, more than twice the high estimate of $100,000. Her earlier works perform the best at auction, including those completed before the 1920s. The Garden Party, one of her more characteristic pieces from the 1910s, was sold by Brunk Auctions for $45,360 in 2016. 

In the artist’s later career, she explored flowers and gardens near her home in Gloucester, Massachusetts. More common than her sweeping beach scenes or intimate portraits, Walter’s flower paintings have historically sold for between $1,000 and $5,000. This representation at a variety of price points has helped bolster her popularity in recent years. Among the offered lots in the upcoming sale are two flower paintings, one showing a vase and drinking glasses on an outdoor table. The other, an indoor still life titled Vase of Poppies, places a red, pink, and purple bouquet on a draped tablecloth.

The auction of these works will begin on July 14, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT. Visit Invaluable for more information on the Walter paintings and to browse the full auction catalog.

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