Many famous artists have called city home
Think of a famous Pittsburgh artist, and the first name to pop into your head will likely be Andy Warhol.
True, the city’s favorite native son made his hometown proud by becoming one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. But you may be surprised to learn that Warhol wasn’t the only artist born in Pittsburgh who went on to reach the pinnacle of success, fame and fortune with their art.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Long before Warhol became internationally recognized, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) rose to fame in 1895 when his painting “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” won an honorable mention in the Paris Salon. Tanner was an academically trained black artist who was born in a station of the Underground Railroad on the North Side (then Allegheny City),
In 1897, Tanner’s painting “Resurrection of Lazarus” was awarded a third-class medal at the Salon, and the French government purchased the painting for an exhibit at the Luxembourg Gallery. Soon after, the painting was featured in the Louvre.
All told, Tanner spent more than 40 years in and around Paris, where he married white opera singer Jessie Olssen.
And, although he turned his back on America in 1891 when he first moved to Paris because he felt the intense racism in this country inhibited his work, he became a hero to black Americans, and reproductions of his most famous painting, “The Banjo Lesson” (1893), hung in countless homes across the United States.
Of his time in France, Tanner once said, “I am simply M. Tanner, an American artist. Nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forebears. I live and work there in terms of absolute social equality.”
Also born on the North Side and Paris-bound was Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Cassatt’s father, Robert Simpson Cassatt, was an early mayor of Allegheny City, who moved his family eastward, first to Lancaster, then to the Philadelphia area, when Cassatt was 6.
Like Tanner, Cassatt went on to study painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. And, after moving to Paris in 1866 with her mother and a few family friends, she soon befriended artist Edgar Degas and began what would be a 40-year friendship with one of the founders of Impressionism.
In 1868, one of her paintings, “A Mandoline Player,” was accepted for the first time by the selection jury for the Paris Salon. Two years later, as the Franco-Prussian War was starting, Cassatt moved back to our region to live with her family in Altoona. Finding little success with her art in America, she returned to Paris in the autumn of 1871, and her career flourished after Degas saw Cassatt’s work at the Salon of 1877 and asked her to exhibit with the Impressionists.
Through her close association with Degas, Cassatt became quite proficient in pastels and learned the art of etching. Cassatt was made all the more famous when Degas produced a series of pastels, drawings and etchings of her at the Louvre, usually standing in front of a piece of art that enthralled her.
It was Degas who persuaded Cassatt to join the Independents, the exhibiting body that had been founded by the Impressionists.
“It was at that moment that Degas persuaded me to send no more to the Salon and to exhibit with his friends in the group of Impressionists,” she once recalled. “I accepted with joy. At last I could work with complete independence without concerning myself with the eventual judgment of a jury. I already knew who were my true masters. I admired Manet, Courbet and Degas. I hated conventional art. I began to live.”
Though he may not have been as famous in his day as Warhol, Tanner or Cassatt, George Sotter (1879-1953) has been called “one of the most locally popular of the Pennsylvania Impressionists.”
Born in Pittsburgh in 1879, Sotter began his art education with local teachers. One of them was Henry G. Keller, who was known for his superb, atmospheric watercolors.
Keller’s influence was profound, and Sotter went on to create paintings that often featured large areas of sky filled with clouds. He also frequently painted winter night scenes, such as “Sunset Glow” (1919-20) in the collection of Carnegie Museum of Art, in which the time of day, sense of light and even temperature of the subject seem palpable.
However, Sotter was a stained-glass artist before he turned to landscape painting. Working for the Pittsburgh stained-glass studio of Horace Rudy, he designed and produced stained-glass windows for churches and institutions in and around the city.
In 1902, Rudy gave Sotter a leave of absence to enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. And that summer he discovered Bucks County through a class taught “en plein air” by famed American Impressionist Edward Redfield.
From that point, Sotter and Redfield became lifelong friends. In 1910, Sotter returned to Pittsburgh to work as a partner in Rudy’s stained-glass studio. He also taught for nine years as assistant professor of painting and design at the Carnegie Institute of Technology.
Today, his award-winning paintings hang in many private and public collections, including the James A. Michener Art Museum, LaSalle University Art Museum, New Jersey State Museum, Pennsylvania State Museum, Reading Public Museum and the Woodmere Art Museum.
Romare Bearden (1911-88) has a strong association with Pittsburgh, having spent his formal years here as a student at Peabody High School, from which he graduated from in 1929.
After studying art at New York University and the Art Students League in New York City, Bearden joined the U.S. Army, and served during World War II. In 1950, after several years of exhibiting and writing about art in addition to working as a social worker with the New York City Department of Social Services, he returned to Europe to attend the Sorbonne under the auspices of the G.I. Bill. There, he studied philosophy and Buddhism, which changed his artistic style immeasurably.
Though most Pittsburghers know of Bearden’s work from his mural “Pittsburgh Recollections” located in the Gateway T station, Downtown, many would be surprised to know that Bearden was a musician who co-wrote the hit song “Sea Breeze,” which was recorded by Billy Eckstine (also born in Pittsburgh) and Dizzy Gillespie. It is still considered a jazz classic.
In 1954, at age 42, he married Nanette Rohan, a 27-year old dancer who herself became an artist and critic. The couple eventually created the Bearden Foundation to assist young artists.
Bearden’s artwork is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].