'Landscape Bird' Soars in Major Retrospective
September 18th 2014 saw the opening of a major and breathtaking retrospective of the landscapes of
Walter Elmer Schofield (1866-1944) at the Woodmere Art Museum in the Chestnut Hill suburb of
Philadelphia. Under the heading of “Schofield: International Impressionist” the artist’s most important show
ever will run until January 24, 2015 and will not travel. Don’t be fooled by the Woodmere. Behind its small
Pennsylvania stone mansion, a three-story addition and rotunda provide space for more than 60 Schofield
masterpiece landscapes, all large-scale and important paintings chosen by the artist’s great grandson
James D. W. Church, who has dedicated himself to tracking down the best of Old Elmer’s works and is now
the leading scholar on the painter.
Of course, Schofield belongs at the Woodmere since he was one of the PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of
Fine Arts) Clan, as categorized by John Sloan, and consisting of Sloan himself, Henri, Glackens, Redfield,
and Schofield. And Henri wrote to Sloan in July 1895: “We had a good voyage. Glack, Schofield and I after
seeing the [Paris] Salons for about 10 days went on a bike trip to Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam,
Harlem & Hague. Great trip, beautiful scenery. Passed through the Champagne district of France. Such
wine! So cheap and so much of it! Oh, la! la!” They were also poker players, with Henri and Sloan hoping
to “clean out” the others on varnishing days while waiting for their canvases to dry. Henri’s formal portrait
of Schofield celebrates the painter’s election to the NAD, where it still hangs.
But while they weren’t drinking and playing cards, the PAFA clan painters were turning out some of the
most beautiful and powerful masterpieces of the American tradition. In another letter to Henri, Sloan called
Schofield, “remarkably knowing” for a “landscape bird.” And the current exhibition is proof indeed,
including works like The Rapids (c. 1914, 50” x 60,” on loan from the Smithsonian), and the Woodmere’s own
Morning Tide—Coast of Cornwall (c. 1920, also 50” x 60”). No wonder Schofield won prize after prize,
including the prestigious Carnegie gold in 1904 for Across the River (exhibited), and the NAD’s Inness gold
in 1911 for February Morning.
|But Redfield and Schofield got into a dispute over the Carnegie gold medal with the former claiming he was
the first to plan the painting. One of the most amusing caricatures reprinted in the current exhibition
catalogue is taken from a letter to Sloan (Nov. 18, 1904) and shows Schofield pompously displaying his
glowing medal while a huge hand identified as Redfield’s claws at it. Although the rancor appears to have
lasted on Redfield’s side, what’s important is the retrospective’s proof of equivalent success. While
Redfield’s reputation has grown, sending his highest auction price of almost a million dollars to twice that
of Schofield’s, Henri’s student Guy Pene du Bois was correct to write in a 1915 notebook: “Redfield,
Schofield, Symons most famous masters of Pennsylvania school. Daniel Garber, Charles Rosen, and Robert
Spencer most famous disciples.”
Schofield won the National Arts Club gold in 1913 for The Spring Thaw (exhibited), which Carol Lowrey
labeled “location unknown,” in her book on the club’s collection. But happily Church has tracked down
this missing masterpiece and borrowed it from the Biggs Museum of American Art. A critic writing in the
Boston Evening Transcript at the time of its NAC debut called This 40” x 48” epic landscape “in every way
one of the finest canvases that has come from his brush.” The painting hints at the theme of his major
works, with the concept of “thaw,” the river itself turning from frozen to flowing. It continues his de-
emphasis of the misty tonalism that he soon abandoned after settling in St. Ives at the turn of the century
and after getting to know Symons and Hayley Lever. Schofield continued with a progressively more
structured impressionism and found his mature style, with its limited palette emphasizing cobalt blue and
grey, green and white values, just prior to leaving America to enlist in the British army. WWI saw him serve
in action at the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history where more than 1,000,000 men were
wounded or killed.
It was only after the war that Schofield painted his greatest post-impressionist canvases. He made some 40
trans-Atlantic crossing, while his stressed-out British wife remained in Cornwall, in order to paint pleine air
American landscapes in the winter. But after settling in a cottage on his son’s newly acquired seventeeth-
century estate, Godolphin, where he spent most of his last ten years, Cornwall became his focus. The
greatest achievement of the retrospective is to provide an extremely important perspective that links
Pennsylvania’s Wissahickon river valley with the rugged Cornish coast—as a comparative study of Morning
Tide—Coast of Cornwall with a masterpiece like The Rapids in Winter (c. 1919, 40” x 48,” exhibited). The river
pounds the rocks of the rapids just as the sea crashes into the massive stone cliffs of the coast in a
tectonic struggle as the artist that is nature creates powerful beauty reflecting endless process. Skeleton-
like gladed trees border the river just as black-green lichen grows out of barren rock while ice cracks and
ocean foam spumes. Nature endures its process, and clearly Schofield, seeing the advent of WWII, hoped
for human survival.
The author is Director of Dryads Green Gallery, which specializes in American masterpiece landscapes from 1840-1940
and has consulted with James D. W. Church on the retrospective exhibition.
1. Revolutionaries of Realism: The Letters of John Sloan and Robert Henri, ed. by Bennard B. Perlman, Princeton Univ.
Press, 1997, p. 14.
2. Sept. 22, 1904, ibid, p. 97.
3. Schofield: International Impressionist, Philadelphia, Woodmere Art Museum, 2014, p. 54. The exhibition catalogue is
the most comprehensive work on the artist in print, correcting many errors, including Schofield’s birth date.
4. Cited in: Valerie Livingston, W. Elmer Schofield: Proud Painter of Modest Lands, Moravian College, 1988, p. 49.
5. A Legacy of Art, NAC, 2007, p. 172-3.
6. Schofield: International Impressionist, p. 143.