Auction Finds: Philadelphia's forgotten artists

Portrait of an American soldier (1954) by Robert Cromartie, an artist about whom little is known.
Portrait of an American soldier (1954) by Robert Cromartie, an artist about whom little is known.
Posted: June 16, 2012

I fell in love with the man in the painting as soon as I saw him. He was leaning against a rail in his green Army uniform — his stare daring, his demeanor flirty.

I didn't know who he was or what artist Robert Cromartie had in mind when he put him to canvas. The man's uniform placed him around World War II, but his defiant look put him decades ahead. Black soldiers weren't supposed to be so confident in the face of a military that didn't want them.

Cromartie is one of what I call Philadelphia's forgotten or lost artists, men and women who worked as schoolteachers or janitors or at the post office to pay the bills. A postal worker, he appeared to have been one of those artists who painted for the love of it, working below the radar, never having reached very high stature. I could not find his name on any early-20th-century exhibition lists I found on the Web or in African American anthologies I have in my art-books collection.

When I started my blog, "Auction Finds," a few years ago, I began documenting artists whose works I found and who moved me in both subject matter and quality. Many of them turned out to be Philadelphia artists. I was often unable to find out much about their lives, so I made it my mission to tell their stories in my blog. Some of their families contacted me, grateful to see them finally recognized.

Cromartie is still a mystery, though. He died in 2007 at age 78, his wife is suffering from dementia, and they had no children, according to the executor of their estate. I did learn in a funeral obit that he served in the military during the 1950s.

"It's strange that there is so little about him," said Rob Goldstein, the art expert at Barry S. Slosberg Auctioneers, which sold the painting and four others from the family's estate. "It's a posthumous example of how easily it is for people to be totally lost to posterity."

Not all of the artists worked outside of art circles, as Cromartie may have done. There were many others, talented like him, whose names showed up in local and national exhibitions from the early 20th century, but little else seemed to be written about their lives. Many of them were African American and women artists, who found it especially hard to get exposure in an art world that Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts curator Robert Cozzolino noted "was not a perfect place." Mainstream museums and galleries weren't eager to show their works, so these artists created their own venues or participated in exhibitions sponsored by others who empathized with them.

Stuart Egnal came to my attention after I saw a trove of his paintings and drawings at an auction house. There were so many of them that I had to write about him. A relative put me in touch with his brother, John, who with his artist-mother, Sylvia, filled out Egnal's life for me. He died at age 26 in 1966 from cancer when he was just beginning to emerge as an artist. He had spent some time in Italy, where he worked prolifically, turning out so many works that he had canvases rolled over each other when he came home. Egnal's mother kept his works for 40 years in her home and studio before offering them for auction when she moved to a smaller place.

Earl A.T. Wilkie was a sculptor and graphic artist who partied and exhibited with other Powelton Village artists in the 1960s, but then dropped out to begin a journey of spiritual self-discovery. His estate auction contained many more books than artworks, and his son, David Raine, said his father read every one of them. Two bedrooms in Wilkie's home were covered from ceiling to floor with books, according to Raine, who also found 100 journals of poetry. For 30 years, Wilkie had worked at Elwyn, an organization that aids people with special needs.

I stumbled onto artist Ed Jones when I bought what I called my "dark and stormy night" painting, a foreboding mix of grays, purples, and blacks from his high school days. I actually bought it for a friend because it didn't initially move me until I noticed in the painting a yellow light in a window. Was it a sign of hope? Jones' sister responded to a blog post about the painting and connected me to him. He described himself as a painter of the city's streets infused with his love of jazz. The house in the painting, he said, was one of the many old Victorian homes in North Philadelphia that have themselves disappeared.

Sarai Sherman's painting Hericane Time was listed in a 1948 Pyramid Club catalog I bought at auction. Her son, Nick, saw my blog post and put me in contact with the artist, who at 89 lives in New York and still paints. She was "a leftist, Jewish woman artist who dressed funny," said her son in recounting an incident in the 1940s when she dared to paint a historical mural in the mess hall of black soldiers in Texas. Sherman won a Fulbright fellowship in 1952 and spent some time in Italy — where she returned often — finding the atmosphere for women artists more accepting than in the United States. I recently received an e-mail from a reader who had a Jimi Hendrix print that Sherman had done in 1969, but could find little about her until he came across my blog post.

Sheila Ayers is working to make sure her husband, Roland, is remembered by trying to organize exhibits and to sell some of his works, one of which I bought at auction a few years ago. When I first saw the signature "R. Ayers" on a canvas, I thought the musician Roy Ayers had become a painter. I tracked down Roland Ayers and connected with his wife. He suffers from Alzheimer's, but I was able to tell his story through his pen-and-ink drawings and her recollections. Ayers seemed to have painted all the time, because he had lots of binders full of his intricate drawings, along with some oil paintings on the walls. Ayers was also a poet and a lover of books and jazz.

Some of the local artists had participated in community exhibitions and national competitions specifically set up to give them the exposure that mainstream venues did not. The works of some of those from my auction finds — including Columbus Knox and Reba Dickerson Hill — were included in a 1969 exhibition sponsored by the Philadelphia School District and the Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center. The exhibition of 100 artists was a Who's Who of the top African American artists in the country (not all from Philadelphia): Lois Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Palmer Hayden, Richmond Barthe, Romare Bearden, Selma Burke, Robert Duncanson, Barkley Hendricks, Louis B. Sloan, Laura Wheeler Waring, and Dox Thrash.

"When I was doing the show, I found a William H. Johnson on the floor in the cellar of the museum," said curator Randall J. Craig Sr., a sculptor and retired arts educator now living in Maryland, speaking of an artist whose works are now famous. Craig was head of art education in the Philadelphia school system and organized the exhibition, which produced a 40-page catalog and, he said, was the largest at that time.

Craig noted that it was "nearly impossible" for African American artists to get exhibition space. "Look through all the museums before the '70s, and there was a dearth of African American artists," he said.

Hence, shows like the one at the Civic Center museum. Philadelphia's Pyramid Club, under the guidance of artist Humbert Howard, was another venue. The club was an exclusive enclave for African American men, but it accepted women in its exhibitions, which were held in its North Philadelphia clubhouse from 1941 into the 1950s.

Matthew Palczynski, curator at the Woodmere Art Museum, noted that it is far less difficult for artists to get their work out into the marketplace nowadays.

"With such a pluralist art world, spanning many geographic, ideological, philosophical and stylistic parameters, artists today have a greater opportunity for greater exposure."

As for the Cromartie painting of the soldier that so captivated me, it sold for $1,000 to a phone bidder.

Sherry L. Howard writes the blog "Auction Finds" at myauctionfinds.com, where you can read about these artists.

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