The Paintings of Martha Walter, Impressionist Jewels, A Retrospective, Woodmere Art Museum, 2002.
Martha Walter was born in Philadelphia in 1875. She attended Girls High School in Philadelphia and then began her artistic studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1894. Here she studied with William Meritt Chase, the most celebrated art teacher of the time. The student-teacher relationship continued, when Martha Walter joined Chase’s Shinnecock School of Art, which he maintained at Southampton on Long Island from 1891 to 1902.
In 1902 Walter won the Toppan Prize for her work at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. The following year she went abroad on a Cresson Traveling Scholarship awarded by the Academy. Once in Paris, she enrolled at the prestigious Académie Julian, where she was the only American in a class of fifty women. A few months later she also joined a class at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière, taking criticism from Raphael Collin, Gustave Courtois, René Menard, and Lucien Simon. It was around this time she began to paint outdoor scenes, recording the Parisian public life. This undertaking coincided with Martha Walter’s first encounter with the American painter Alfred Maurer, whose work she much admired, and whose Parisian café and street scenes of the period may have provided inspiration for Walter’s early paintings. In 1904 Martha Walter exhibited two works at the Paris Salon on the Champs Elysées, a portrait study and a painting of a Parisian vegetable market.
It was during the early years of the twentieth century that the artist began her nearly life-long peregrinations, seeking out distinctive national and ethnic subject matter in both Europe and North Africa. Together with her friend, the artist Alice Schille, she dedicated her summers to traveling abroad, while spending the rest of the year painting in Philadelphia.
Martha Walter’s paintings were favorably noticed quite early in her career. She was first included in the prestigious biennial exhibitions of contemporary American paintings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1907, and her paintings appeared there at an additional six biennial shows though 1926. Also, between 1907 and 1921, four paintings were accepted for the Carnegie Institute’s annual exhibition, held in Pittsburgh. In 1909 Walter received another award from the Pennsylvania Academy, this time the Mary Smith Prize for the best work by a woman resident of Philadelphia.
World War I prevented Walter from traveling abroad. Around this time she began to spend her summers at the increasingly popular artists’ colony in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which she had joined in 1913, and where she worked in the Parmento Studios. It was in Gloucester that her work began to embody to the fullest the strategic qualities of Impressionism. Through the second half of the decade, Walter was a consistent exhibitor at the annual exhibitions of the Gallery on the Moors in Gloucester. It was at her Gloucester studio that she first began to teach, subsequently offering classes in Chicago and New York. During the early 1920s Walter offered a six-month painting course in France under the sponsorship of the New York School of Fine and Applied Art.
In 1922 Martha Walter painted what became her most celebrated images, a series of works depicting the immigrants on Ellis Island, awaiting entry into the United States. Along with beach scenes painted both in New England and in France, garden subjects, and French market scenes, twenty-two of her Ellis Island paintings were included in a large one-artist exhibition held at the prestigious Galleries Georges Petit in Paris in July 1922. The series subsequently appeared in 1923 at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Arlington Galleries in New York.
Around 1940, Walter appears to have ceased her extensive travels. She spent the rest of her years in the Philadelphia suburbs, living with her sisters. The George Hunter Museum of Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee, held a one-artist show of her work in 1953, and two years later the Woodmere Art Gallery held a major Martha Walter exhibition. In the late 1960s, the David David Gallery in Philadelphia began to represent her and shared her paintings with the Hammer Galleries in New York. Shortly before her centenary she was the subject of her second single artist exhibition at the Hammer Galleries, a show that emphasized the joyous aspects of her outdoor work as well as a turn to still lifes, some painted en plein air.
Today, the works of Pennsylvania impressionist painter Martha Walter are represented in the Louvre, The Musee du Luxembourg, The Musee d’Orsay, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, The Art Institute of Chicago, Detroit Institute of Arts, Milwaukee Art Center, Toledo Museum of Art, Terra Museum of Art and The Woodmere Art Gallery.
In our piece Sunday, Fairmount Park, Martha Walter has captured a sunny afternoon in the park, it is vibrant in color and the composition is informal. The ways in which Martha Walter has created a scene that shimmers with light and the various shades of green and blue makes this piece a prime example of how our artist skillfully captures free air and irradiating sunshine. The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn toward the large groups of people gathered around the picnic tables, painted in leisurely fashion. However, the white tablecloths and the women’s festive dresses seem to indicate that they are celebrating a special event. The festive tables are set in between groups of trees, and their dazzling tonalities enhance the impression of a warm summer day. People are enjoying the relaxed and intimate atmosphere of the event, a few of them are even taking a rest on blankets spread out on the ground. Some of the women’s dresses are held in bright Impressionist colors, primarily a dark sparkling blue and a brilliant turquoise. These colors interrupt the scenery, otherwise dominated by earth tones and a curtain of brilliant green colors. Walter has captured the dappled light shining through these trees, bringing out a myriad of green tonalities in the ground. In the background the contours of the protruding hills are barely discernible because of the warm summer haze but they are indicating the vastness of the landscape stretching into the horizon.