by Carla Robinson
The latest exhibition from the Woodmere Art Museum, George Biddle: The Art of the American Social Conscience, which opens on Saturday, September 24th, presents an impressive exhibition of one of Philadelphia’s most important artists.
Born into wealth and privilege, Biddle lived a life of exceptional access to those of power and influence, yet developed a distinctly progressive approach to his work and life.
“Biddle was born into one of the most respected families in Philadelphia and the world, and enjoyed all the privileges that wealth can bring to a generation,” said Bill Valerio, director and CEO of Woodmere and senior curator of the exhibit. “Nevertheless, he became one of the most culturally open and liberal artists of his generation.”
In a career spanning the mid-decades of the 20th century, Biddle interacted closely with leading luminaries in the art world and important figures in progressive politics, and became a leading voice in American art himself. He had a place at the forefront of history – and participated in the important movements in the arts of his time.
In the first decades of the 20thth At the end of the 19th century, Biddle was just old enough for artist and family friend Mary Cassatt to introduce him to Renoir, Degas and the Parisian avant-garde. He attended the first exhibitions that brought Cubism and Futurism to the world, attending the Armory Show in New York in 1913.
“If he goes to Paris, who will take him under her wing other than Mary Cassatt, the only American artist at the center of the emergence of French Impressionism?” said Valerio. “She was basically the queen of the art world. She was able to say, “Oh, well, you have to meet Monet.” I think that’s really what defines Biddle, a young man who went to Groton [boarding school] and to Harvard, along that path, and realizing that art is truly his calling.”
After his return to the States, Biddle became a New York bohemian for a time, haunting the Greenwich Village speakeasies and the jazz clubs of the Harlem Renaissance. He then painted with the great muralist Diego Rivera in Mexico, where he learned very personally that politics can be deadly.
“Here he was in Mexico and painted with Rivera for a while [Leon] Trotsky was in exile there,” Valerio said. “Then Trotsky is assassinated by [Joseph] Stalin’s henchmen. He saw very clearly that Stalin was an evil and cruel dictator.”
According to Valerio, Biddle believed that art and creative thinking were the fundamental ingredients of a fair and just society.
“I think Biddle represents the best of Philadelphia culture in many ways,” Valerio said. “Although not a Quaker himself, he lived a life of Quaker values - tolerance, openness and humility.”
It was Biddle who encouraged his Harvard classmate, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to use artists to revitalize the US economy during the Great Depression. And then he served as an able administrator of that initiative, serving on many of the federal committees that formed the Works Progress Administration and other federal arts initiatives.
Biddle carried out his own projects in Brazil, Mexico, Haiti, Italy, Tahiti, India and Hollywood (collaborating with film director John Ford) and then became a war correspondent for life and Looks Magazines in World War II.
Later, his drawings as court painter at the Nuremberg trials are among the most intense works in the show and are gifts to Woodmere from the artist’s family.
Along the way, his friends George and Ira Gershwin invited him to illustrate the first publication of the libretto Porgy and bessand when he visited India in the late 1950s, he made a portrait of the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Valerio described Biddle’s art as “hard at times”.
“But it opens the mind to the beauty of new ideas and the questions of complicated stories,” he said.
The opening on September 24 is planned from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Visit woodmereartmuseum.org for more information.