The Brush is Mightier than the Sword

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The Michener Art Museum is fortunate to have in its collection many examples of paintings and works on paper that both celebrate daily life and reveal the plight of the homeless and the hungry. The Brush Is Mightier than the Sword: Twentieth-Century Works from the Michener Art Museum Collection, now on view in the museum’s Commonwealth Gallery, focuses on the tradition of “art with a conscience”—art that’s meant to open our eyes and change the world.

This form has a long and colorful history, but truly came into its own in the tumult and ferment of the first half of the 20th century.

“It’s easy to forget how bad things were when President Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’” says Brian H. Peterson, the Michener’s Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest Chief Curator. “Wall Street executives were jumping from office windows, prosperous middle-class families were driven to the streets, and the entire fabric of American society seemed to be unraveling. Artists who didn’t confront the troubles of the day, who focused on nature or made colorful abstractions, were considered trivial and unpatriotic.”

As the renowned French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson put it, the world was falling to pieces and artists like Ansel Adams were “doing pictures of rocks.”

The Brush Is Mightier than the Sword: Twentieth-Century Works from the Michener Art Museum Collection honors the artists – Ben Shahn, Violet Oakley, Guy Pene du Bois, William Gropper and Julius Bloch among them – who created these works, and the generous collectors who made it possible for us all to see them. The show samples works from several important gifts and bequests, including paintings from the collections of John Horton, Lee and Barbara Maimon, and Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest.

The exhibit includes a selection of work donated to the Michener in late 2012 by Philadelphia collector Seymour Millstein, who has a special love for industrial scenes, portraits, and narrative works. “I’m very partial to Pennsylvania regional painters from the early to mid 20th century,” says Millstein. “I’m into landscapes and people with interesting faces.”

A few examples of more abstract and modernist works by Bucks County painters Charles Ramsey and B. J. O. Nordfeldt are featured; these canvases are gifts from the Lenfests, who also donated more than 60 works from the Bucks County landscape tradition.

“It’s said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but equally powerful are the brushes and palettes of visionary artists and the generosity of collectors who care, collectors without whom museums like the Michener would be nothing but bare walls and empty vaults,” says Peterson.

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