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Walter, Martha

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, 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 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, 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.

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 in an additional six biennial shows though 1926. Between 1907 and 1921, four of her 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, 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.