Kevin Riordan: South Jersey painter Raphael Senseman had a popular touch

Richard Pillatt talks about Raphael Senseman's painting of Lord Camden, to his left. Senseman made art out of South Jersey's woods, waterways and seasons, working on as many as six pictures at a time - and he made them affordable to working people.
Richard Pillatt talks about Raphael Senseman's painting of Lord Camden, to his left. Senseman made art out of South Jersey's woods, waterways and seasons, working on as many as six pictures at a time - and he made them affordable to working people. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 14, 2011

The painter Raphael Senseman, who mass-produced and then peddled his pastel pictures door to door, "wasn't a great artist," Richard Pillatt observed.

"He was the epitome of a commercial artist," the historian added, describing the "amazingly prolific" Collingswood painter during a talk at the Camden County Historical Society on Sunday.

"He rarely worked in oil, because oil was expensive," said Pillatt, who owns a gorgeous, golden Senseman seascape. "He painted what he knew would sell."

Senseman (1870-1966) had a good eye not only for local beauty, but for the local market. He made art out of South Jersey's woods, waterways, and changing seasons - working on as many as six pictures at a time - and made them affordable to working people. He'd even throw in a frame free.

No wonder Senseman is still beloved by fans - like the dozen people gathered at the society's museum on Park Boulevard in Camden for a one-day exhibit. About 20 watercolors and oils were on display, most depicting pastoral vistas.

"It was in the window of an antiques store in Collingswood, and I fell in love with it," Gail Valente recalled, describing an impulsive purchase she made 20 years ago of a signature Senseman view of Newton Creek.

"I was feeling down in the dumps, and the painting was so beautiful," said Valente, 62, of Collingswood. "I didn't necessarily have the means at the time, but I bought it for 50 bucks. And I treasure it."

Others talked about a similarly personal connection to the Senseman pictures that now grace their homes. Two sisters - Phyllis Wills and Carol Moan - remembered their mother buying them each a painting.

"It was around 1950," said Wills, 67, of Westmont.

Senseman "came down Crestmont Terrace in Collingswood, peddling them," added Moan, 66, of Berlin Borough. She has since bought two more and describes all three as "very soothing."

In a 1986 issue of the Camden County Historical Society Bulletin, Peter P. Childs wrote that Senseman's uncle, the respected artist William L. Lippincott, informally taught his nephew.

From 1893 to 1898, Senseman painted labels at the Campbell Soup Co., and by 1906 he had moved to Collingswood and was selling his own work.

"It was [his] well-established routine to paint three or so days a week then to bundle up these works and sell them door to door . . . for as little as 50 cents or as much as $5 or $6," Childs wrote.

Today, smaller samples of Senseman's work can sell for around $300, while larger pictures can command "close to $1,000," according to Mullica Hill antiques dealer Bill Quirk.

"He's not a huge draw," said Quirk, who has picked up a dozen Sensemans at local estate and yard sales. "But he does have a niche."

Not everyone knows that. Cindy Kelly found a densely detailed, woodsy watercolor in a Haddon Township Dumpster.

"I like trees, and I thought it was beautiful, so I took it home," said Kelly, 53, who lives in Camden's Cramer Hill section. She brought along her find to the society; it certainly looked like a Senseman.

Pillatt, a society board member who lives in Collingswood, noted that people rarely appear in Senseman's pictures. But the artist's best-known work is a portrait: the imposing likeness of a bewigged Lord Camden that glowered from the wall of Council chambers in City Hall for seven decades.

(Having covered Camden for years, I know that baleful gaze well. As the painting deteriorated, the man for whom the city and county are named turned an ever more bilious green.)

"It's not particularly attractive - in fact, it's hideous - but it's a historically important painting," Pillatt noted.

Commissioned by a city merchant to paint a gift for the new City Hall, Senseman, the father of five, worked from a "very bad print" of a London painting, Pillatt said. Childs' account suggests the artist may have based the face in the painting on the one belonging to George E. Brunner.

"Before he was mayor," Pillatt noted.

Brunner went on to lead the city for a record six terms. When Council chambers were renovated a few years back, the painting - let's call it "A Portrait of the Lord Mayor" - was shipped off to the society, where it awaits restoration.

In homes like Gail Valente's, however, the limpid landscapes of Raphael Senseman still shimmer in the light.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com. Read the metro columnists' blog at http://www.philly.com/blinq

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