How the Philadelphia Ten Forged Their Own Luck in the Art World
Art groups are no recent invention, and neither are dedicated art groups for women. Gender-specific collectives date back as early as 1867 in the United States, decades before the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote. In particular, one early 20th-century group stood out for its persistence and reach: the Philadelphia Ten. This exhibiting group was active between 1917 and 1945. By banding together, these women artists earned both fame and financial security in a city that had previously limited them. Despite their widespread acclaim, the Philadelphia Ten artists remain relatively unknown today.
Who were these artists, and how did they climb to the top of the art world? Auction Daily investigates ahead of Rago’s American + European Art sale this December.
Early 20th-century Philadelphia was a hotspot for artists. The Philadelphia School of Design for Women was the national leader in women’s art education, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts established an international reputation for gender equality. However, opportunities did not necessarily greet all graduates of these schools. Many galleries refused to exhibit the work of women artists, treated them as hobbyists, or exercised undue control over their shows.
The Philadelphia Ten combated these issues. Initially comprised of 11 members, the Philadelphia Ten aimed to return exhibiting control to artists. Each participating artist received an education in Philadelphia, and many were old schoolmates. They came from diverse backgrounds, many of which were considered radical or subversive at the time. Some members remained unmarried and child-free by choice. Others kept their maiden names after marriage.
“For the most part these were emotionally and financially stable women who were also ambitious, adventurous, and creative,” writes Tara Tappert in a review of the Philadelphia Ten. “While most of their work is not on the cutting edge of modernism— the result of which is that few of these artists are currently represented in museum collections— the kind of paintings and sculpture that they were creating found enthusiastic audiences during the era in which they were produced.”
The Philadelphia Ten launched their first joint exhibition in 1917. While several sculptors joined the group, painters predominated. They filled the walls with serene landscapes, seascapes, and views of the city. Many pieces bore traces of imported Impressionism. As Philadelphia became a base for American Impressionism, members of the Philadelphia Ten experimented with its bold brushstrokes and vivid colors. Collectors considered their traditionally feminine subject matter to be more palatable than the far-flung edges of Modernism.
The Philadelphia Ten artists discovered that they were stronger together. The group’s composition expanded and contracted gradually over the next 28 years. Veteran artists advised novices, and all contributed to a supportive working environment. The group came to include a maximum of 30 members. They experienced incredible success. The Philadelphia Ten sponsored 65 exhibitions of original work before dissolving in 1945. Many artists earned enough to support themselves and their families, which was no small feat during the Great Depression and the early years of World War II. Some members even earned mainstream acclaim. Theresa Bernstein, for example, enjoyed a 90-year career and brushed shoulders with the likes of William Merritt Chase.
Much of the Philadelphia Ten’s success came from aggressive and strategic marketing campaigns. The group partnered with organizations such as the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women and the American Federation of the Arts. Together, they launched traveling exhibitions to bring paintings and sculptures to rural communities across the United States. And while this was partially a vehicle for arts education, it was also tremendously profitable. Members of the Philadelphia Ten set competitive prices for their works. The average price tag for a painting was between USD 350 and $500, which is well over $4,000 today after inflation.
The influence of the Philadelphia Ten slowly faded as the 20th century progressed. Delicate paintings of gardens and cities fell out of fashion as the American art world repeatedly embraced novel styles and movements. However, interest in the group started to revive in the late 1990s. After the Moore College of Art and Design organized a traveling exhibition of the Philadelphia Ten’s work, art historians started to revisit this long-forgotten group. Within the last 20 years, the Philadelphia Ten has started to receive the attention it is due.
The secondary art market has kept pace. Bronze sculptures by Philadelphia Ten member Harriet Whitney Frishmuth regularly fetch $100,000 or above. In addition to painting, Theresa Bernstein became a writer with significant influence in the Jewish-American art world. Painters Fern Isabel Coppedge and Mary Elizabeth Price both enjoyed storied careers and lasting legacies.
Most recently, Rago included paintings by Coppedge and Price in its American + European Art auction, scheduled for December 8, 2021. June in the Catskills by Fern Isabel Coppedge is a strong example of the artist’s work and the broader American Impressionism movement (estimate: $25,000 – $35,000). Colorful houses pepper rolling hillsides as deep blue mountains tower in the background. The piece evokes a quilt-like effect. Mary Elizabeth Price’s Orchids with Fern makes strategic use of silver gilt to make the titular flowers pop (estimate: $12,000 – $18,000). The painting’s subdued color palette takes on a slightly ethereal quality thanks to the shine.
Rago’s American + European Art auction will begin at 11:00 AM EST on December 8, 2021. Visit Rago’s website for more information and to place a bid.
Searching for more fine art in the market? Auction Daily recently profiled a group of underappreciated contemporary artists with work available at Stair.