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This is my favorite time in preparing an exhibition. Almost everything is up on the wall, and what for months have been ideas now become reality in installation. The Second Studio, with a stunning array of works on paper looks wonderful. Portraits of Rae inter mingle with landscapes, theater portraits, still lifes and figure works. Drawings hang side by side with watercolors, monotypes, woodcuts, etchings, and pastels. We have created a novel way of seeing some double sided works as well, giving visitors a unique view of Ben’s restless need to create.StudioSelfPortrait

In the Main Studio, hang a number of oils that audiences will marvel at. Still lifes that date back to 1926 reveal that Ben had already mastered this genre at a young age, and several others in the room show that he only got better as he matured as an artist. Over the main wall, we have hung two remarkable portraits of close Solowey friends: artist Joseph Meierhans, a Swiss abstract artist who settled in Bucks County and opened a studio to showcase his work and his contemporaries; and writer Virginia Castleton, a long time Solowey friend who wrote a landmark profile of Rae for Prevention magazine and who would also write the appreciation to the historic retrospective at Woodmere Art Museum in 1979.

Fall is starting to make itself known outside the studio as the green of summer is being replaced by the browns, reds, yellow and oranges of autumn. The fields that line the lane into the property have soybeans this year, and they have reached maturity and await harvesting. They come right up to our new parking area which nature itself is camouflaging.

We hope that you have received your invitation in the mail with its delightful 1934 portrait of Rae in a fur collar. We are looking forward to welcoming everyone on October 3rd both in the Studio to see the exhibition and down at the house for some home make baked goods.

David Leopold

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of America’s oldest, and most prestigious museums. It’s collection is filled with masterpieces of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art; Old Masters; European and American decorative arts; Asian art; modern and contemporary art; architecture, industrial and graphic design; and American art such as Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic” and Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”

For three-quarters of a century, the Art Institute mounted annual exhibitions of American art, which included a wide range of painters, both well known and emerging, from across the country. Ben Solowey was frequently included in this survey, and was often part of the smaller, but distinctive, touring exhibitions of the best from each year’s display.

In Ben Solowey’s Paper Trails, visitors will have the opportunity to travel back in time to 1944 to see Ben’s entry in the annual show, his striking“Spring Flowers.” IMG_3545

This lovely watercolor whose subject was almost certainly culled from Ben’s garden here on the farm is a terrific example of his still life painting of the period. The angle of the picture frame, the colors, the personal touches such as the pipe and ashtray, and the flowered pitcher (which has been featured in Solowey still lifes for nearly twenty years at this point in his career), are all hallmarks of a signature Solowey painting from the 1940s.

We are presenting the work exactly as it looked to audiences at that time in the same grey-blue frame with its exhibit sticker still affixed to the glass. This work hung alongside works by Charles Sheeler, Paul Cadmus, Charles Burchfield, Marc Chagall, George Grosz, Reginald Marsh, Man Ray, and many others in an exhibit that ran from June to August before touring to several other museums.

We will have the watercolor along with its crate in Ben Solowey’s Paper Trails to document the various institutions it visited after it left the Art Institute before returning to Bucks County, along with the catalogue from the 1944 exhibition and several others at the Chicago landmark that Ben was represented in. We invite to come see this beautiful work that impressed audiences of the period and the show’s three-man jury which included Andrew Weyth.



Tokiyatro Tsutsui, 1930

Japonisme was the term used to describe the influence of Japanese art on fashion and aesthetics on Western culture. Like many artists of his generation, Ben was influenced by Japanese woodcuts and had several hanging in his home, and through the European interpretation of the woodcuts in the work of Impressionist artists such as Manet, Monet, Whistler, and Degas who synthesized a great deal of Japanese style into their art.

In Ben Solowey’s Paper Trails, you will also see how Ben personalized the flat colors and draughtsmanship of Japanese art in a selection of monotypes and woodcuts in the exhibition, as well as a handful of watercolors and drawings that have a sublime beauty and tranquility that can be traced to Asian art but is uniquely Ben Solowey’s.

Mae LingFang

Mei Lanfang in The Chinese Plays, 1930

Ben also captured the Asian influence on Broadway in the 1930s. On March 2, 1930, his portrait of Tokujiro Tsutsui, a Japanese actor-manager, filled a sizable portion of the front page of the Drama section of the New York Times. Tsutsui capitalized on the vogue for Japan by bringing his troupe of Kabuki-like performers to the Booth Theater for two weeks, performing his version of Kabuki masterworks with much more swordplay, which was his specialty. Tsutsui’s portrait will be on the wall in our new exhibition.

Ben’s portrait of Chinese actor, director and designer, Mei Lanfang is also well known as it was featured in the landmark 1966 exhibition of Ben’s Theater Portraits at Lincoln Center and included in the double portfolio set that was printed for that show. He was perhaps the most famous Peking Opera performer in modern history and was known for exclusively playing Qing yi roles, feminine characters (typically young or middle-aged women with gentle and refined dispositions) whose lines are delivered in song, and even the spoken parts are recited in rhythmic style. Mei Lanfang autographed his portrait in Chinese.

Precious Lady Stream Photo

Helen Chandler in Lady Precious Stream, 1936

S.I. Hsiung was a Chinese playwright who came to London in 1933 to pursue postgraduate studies on Shakespeare. He decided to adapt a Chinese drama for English audiences as a way to create a link between the two cultures and to pay for his studies. Lady Precious Stream is set in the Tang dynasty, and depicts the devotion of a wife (the show’s title character) for her adventurous husband, of his prowess as a warrior, and his ultimate return.

Produced in London in 1934 with an all-English cast, it proved to be a hit, running for more than 1,000 performances. Morris Gest, well known for bringing the Moscow Art Theatre, Eleanor Duse, and Max Reinhardt to American stages in the 1920s, brought the production from London and recast American actors in the roles, with Helen Chandler in the lead role and Mei Lanfang designing the costumes. Chandler was a striking actress who is best remembered today as the love interest in the 1931 film of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, and she split her time between Broadway and Hollywood. Chandler’s portrait, showing the actress in costume will have a starring role in our new exhibition opening October 3rd.

Worth The Wait

I hope everyone has had a wonderful summer. The weather has cooperated, and here on the farm it has been as lush as ever. The response to my new book on Al Hirschfeld and its companion exhibition, as well as for my Grateful Dead exhibition in Chicago has been very gratifying. I am always delighted to tell reporters when they ask how I got involved with Hirschfeld’s work twenty-five years ago, it was because I was researching Ben’s classic theater portraits that often appeared alongside Hirschfeld’s work in the New York Times and Herald Tribune between 1929 and 1942.

I have also had the luxury of extra time to pull together our

Cross River, New York Reservoir Pen, Ink & wash on paper, 1935

Cross River, New York Reservoir
Pen, Ink & wash on paper, 1935

new show here at the Solowey Studio, Ben Solowey’s Paper Trails. It includes a number of fine works that have spent the last thirty years in a private collection and are now having the opportunity to be seen by a wider audience. There are several portraits of Rae that are simply stunning. These portraits range from one of the earliest charcoal drawings Ben ever made of Rae, to works that reveal a much more mature, but still very beautiful, Rae, nearly fifty years later.

There are also exquisite landscapes, primarily in watercolor, of scenes from this property, often times shrouded in snow. These works radiate a tranquility and beauty that Ben felt he saw every time he looked at the window. They are as personal and intimate as his works of his wife.

We have a nice selection of Theatre Portraits in the show, although the emphasis in more on music than theater in this exhibition. Please make sure to read Associate Curator Katherine Eastman’s article on the two drawings from the world of Gilbert and Sullivan.

In the coming weeks we will tell you more about the works in the show, as well as the works in the Main Studio, where we display mostly oils. Look out for news about a “selfie” by Ben that is returning to the Studio for the first time in close to twenty years. There’s also news for the more craftsman minded admirers of Ben, as we will explore Ben’s frame-making featuring a still life in one of Ben’s frame that has never been exhibited before.

We think you will find this exhibition well worth the wait when we open on October 3rd. It will be a great time to take in the beautiful vistas the Solowey farm has to offer in the fall. We look forward to sharing them with you.

David Leopold, Director

In 1955 Ben Solowey embarked on Figure Composition, a painting that would become a favorite of the

Figure Composition Oil on canvas, 1955

Figure Composition
Oil on canvas, 1955

Soloweys, critics and collectors. Ben drew a full size charcoal study before starting his oil. It was not unusual for Ben to make preparatory studies before painting in oils, especially for larger works such as this painting. It was rare for him to make a full size study in charcoal though. It is almost as if he knew he was creating what would turn out to be one of his signature works. Paper Trails will exhibit this remarkable drawing for the first time anywhere. It is a unique opportunity to see the birth of a masterpiece.

After at least five different sittings, Ben photographed the painting in progress, capturing the evolution of one of his best-known works. The work was reproduced widely—on the cover of Prevention magazine and Pennsylvania Heritage magazine to name two— and though many wished to purchase the work, Ben, and after he died, Rae, would never let the work leave the studio for anything other than exhibitions.

David Leopold

Study for Figure Composition Charcoal on paper, ca. 1955

Study for Figure Composition
Charcoal on paper, ca. 1955

The influence of Gilbert and Sullivan can be seen and heard all around us. Musicians and lyricists alike were influenced by the duo, including songwriters and composers from Irving Berlin to Andrew Lloyd Weber. Gilbert’s lyrics set the stage for the American musical to be born, with songs directly referencing the plot and addressing both political and social issues of the day. The strong parodies of everyday life, both good and bad, did not take away from the entertaining nature of the songs. Shows could now be both informative and entertaining! Carolyn Williams of Rutgers University even brings Gilbert and Sullivan into the 21st century, comparing the duo to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, “casting a critical eye to the day’s political and cultural obsessions.”

In England and all across Europe, Gilbert and Sullivan operas were performed exclusively by the D’Oyly

Frank Moulan in Trial by Jury, 1933

Frank Moulan in Trial by Jury, 1933

Carte Opera Company. D’Oyly Carte started in 1875, and was comprised of a true ensemble cast. Performers were carefully groomed for their roles and no one performer was considered more important than another. While D’Oyly Carte held the copyright for all Gilbert and Sullivan operas in England and many other locations abroad, they failed to secure the rights for American performances. Thus many Gilbert and Sullivan troupes began their own repertory in America. Unlike popular American theatre were based around a bigger star or show-stopping performer, many American Gilbert and Sullivan troupes mimicked the ensemble nature of the D’Oyly Carte and strived for productions that kept the group mentality. Vera Ross and Frank Moulan were valued members of companies like this. Both had long careers bringing Gilbert and Sullivan to American audiences.

Frank Moulan was a prolific performer in the duo’s work for 37 years. His first Gilbert and Sullivan opera was H.M.S. Pinafore in 1899 with the Castle Square Opera Company. His talent as a Savoyard was immediately recognized. “He bids fair to advance to the front ranks of the comic opera comedians; he has genius,” wrote a reviewer in 1900 about his debut performance. Moulan’s career in the 20th century was almost exclusively Gilbert and Sullivan credits, totaling 31 different productions. Moulan’s 1933 portrait is from Trial by Jury, in which he played The Learned Judge.

Vera Ross in The Pirates of Penzance, 1935

Vera Ross in The Pirates of Penzance, 1935

When Solowey drew Vera Ross in The Pirates of Penzance, she already had 10 years of experience with Gilbert and Sullivan operas, beginning in 1926 with a production of Iolanthe. Ross was no stranger to the pirate code. This 1935 production was her 5th time playing the role of Ruth, the contralto “piratical maid of all work,” and she would reprise the role once more in 1936.

Ross and Moulan spent most of their careers with the Milton Aborn Opera Company. Aborn had been producing light and grand opera since the later 19th century and staunchly believed that audiences wanted “good music at popular prices.” Aborn, drawn by Solowey in 1931, was responsible for most of the Gilbert and Sullivan seen on Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s. After Aborn’s death that November, Ross and Moulan started working for Lodewick Vroom at the Civic Light Opera Company..

Ross’ stage career came full circle when she ended it with her fifth Broadway production of Iolanthe in 1936, costarring William Danforth, yet another Aborn Company member with an extensive list of Gilbert and Sullivan credits, and Moulan directing. Iolanthe would be the final Broadway bow for all three performers. Hollywood gave them an encore when they were cast in the film The Girl Who Said No the following year. The film follows the story of a man who revives a defunct Gilbert and Sullivan troupe to seek revenge on a girl who rejected him. While the film did not merit great reviews, the trio’s Savoyard performances were heralded. All three would soon disappear from both stage and screen. The golden age for Gilbert and Sullivan on Broadway had ended. Their operas would continue to live on, but never again be produced with such regularity as they were in this period.

The portraits of Frank Moulan and Vera Ross will be featured in the upcoming exhibition “Paper Trails” at the Studio of Ben Solowey.

Katherine Eastman
Associate Curator

We have some good news and some bad news about our next show at the Studio of Ben Solowey. Let me start with the bad news. For only the second time in 23 years, we will not be opening a new show at the Studio in June. Unfortunately my work as a curator for museums around the country is to blame. Just last week I opened a big new show on Al Hirschfeld at the New York Historical Society titLeopold_jkt_r2led THE HIRSCHFELD CENTURY bringing together many of his greatest drawings under one roof for the first time. It coincides with the publication of my book of the same name by Alfred A. Knopf. It is probably the best thing I have ever written and while it is only available for sale for the first six weeks at the NY Historical Society, it will be in book stores everywhere (ok, Amazon, etc) on July 8th.

This week I head off to Chicago where I have been asked to assemble, in a very short time, an exhibition celebrating the Grateful Dead and their fans for the Field Museum to be on view when the band plays its final shows on July 3rd through 5th. The show will include not only lots of wonderful artifacts from the band and Deadheads, but it will be in fabulous Stanley Field Hall at the Field Museum which includes a dinosaur skeleton, stuffed elephants, and totem poles. In other words, it will be unlike anything I have ever done before.

Consequently, I can’t give the Studio show what it deserves and what our audience deserves, so rather than spread myself too thin, we are postponing the show until September.

And this is the good news actually. The show, Paper Trails by Ben Solowey, is an incredible collection of works of paper by Ben, many of which you have never seen before. There are several stunning drawings of Rae, including one of Ben’s first portraits of his wife who came to represent “woman eternal,” in so much of his work, along with very personal drawings of paintings of the Solowey farm in all of its seasons.

Of course, we will include some of Ben’s legendary Theatre Portraits, including one drawn from life of Arturo Toscanini that was exhibited only once before, ten years ago. There are works in charcoal, pencil, ink, pastel, watercolor, casein, etchings, woodcuts, and monotypes. Just when you think you have seen all that Ben has to offer, you will be surprised to discover works that will remind why Ben’s work continues to enthrall viewers.

In the Main Studio, there are oil paintings that have never been exhibited here, including his prize winning Pink Tablecloth, and even a selection of handcrafted frames by Ben that will be new to Studio visitors.

I apologize that my work denies many of you of your annual trek to Bucks County to revel in the world both in and outside of the Studio. I promise you that this new exhibition will be worth the wait. We will keep you up to date over the summer and share with you some of the pieces that will be included in the show in the fall. Remember it was the Philadelphia Inquirer that said, “When you visit the studio of Ben Solowey, you do more than see an exhibition, you enter an artist’s world…The charm of [the Studio] is its sense of intimacy and immediacy. Nothing is under glass or roped; rather, it conveys the uncanny feeling that Solowey has just stepped away from his easel and will be back any minute. On a crisp fall day, you couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.


We’ll see you when we do,

David Leopold

NYAddressBookHere is a page Ben Solowey’s address book when he lived in New York between 1928 and 1942, before moving permanently to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. This single page provides a glimpse into Ben’s world from that time.

The first entry on the page, obviously “K” in his address book, is playwright George Kelly. Ben had drawn a portrait of Kelly, a native Philadelphian who won the Pulitzer in 1925 for his play Craig’s Wife, in 1929 when Kelly’s play Maggie the Magnificent was about to open. Today Kelly is best known as the uncle of Grace Kelly, but his plays The Torch-Bearers (in which his niece Grace made her stage debut at the Bucks County Playhouse in 1949) and The Show-Off are still revived in theaters across the country.

Ben probably knew Arthur Kober, the second entry, strictly as press agent, who Ben would have dealt with to make appointments to draw performers. Kober had married playwright Lillian Hellman in 1925, although the union would not last. In 1926, he started to contribute humorous pieces to The New Yorker, and he became a regular contributor for next quarter century. He also wrote several plays and screenplays.

The third entry probably needs no introduction. George Kaufman was the both a popular playwright and director and New York Times drama editor when they met. Ben would draw Kaufman in 1941.

Otto Kruger was a character actor who Ben had drawn in a 1930 forgettable drama The Boundary Line. Kruger would alter go to Hollywood and often play villians such as Tobin in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942). In High Noon, ten years later, he played Judge Percy Metrick who tires to convince Gary Cooper to leave town before the gunfight.

The final entry on this page is for Ben’s dentist.

James BartonJames Barton was a song and dance man, famous for his drunk act. Early in his career, he frequently appeared in burlesques, and worked closely with African American dancers, eventually becoming a great eccentric dancer. The young Barton began his career at age 8, performing across the country with his parents who owned their own vaudeville repertory.

Barton’s first big break came when he was cast in The Passing Show of 1919 on Broadway, the Shubert’s response to the Ziegfeld Follies. This led to steady work for the next decade. Barton proved himself to be vaudeville royalty by headlining the Palace eight times from 1928 to 1932. In 1933, Barton turned to the legitimate stage with his career-defining role in the Broadway hit play Tobacco Road in 1933.

Ben drew Barton when he replaced Henry Hull as Jeeter Lester, the patriarch of the struggling Georgia family. Though disturbing and a sad portrait of a poor family, Tobacco Road was played more and more for laughs. With Barton’s background in comedic and often alcohol infused roles, he was able to bring a sense of likeability to the otherwise unlikeable Jeeter Lester. Over the course of 5 years, Barton played the role in over 2,000 performances, making it one of the longest running shows in Broadway history, as well as the 2nd longest running non-musical.. But Tobacco Road didn’t start out as a sure blockbuster.

From the first reviews of the Jack Kirkland play, it did not look like the Lester family would stay on Broadway for very long. Opening during the hard times of the Depression in December 1933, the story followed the Lester family of Georgia, who have hit hard times with the depletion of their tobacco crop.

Despite bad reviews, ticket sales took off when prices were cut from $3.30 to $1.10. Brooks Atkinson said of the play “Plays as clumsy and rudderless as ‘Tobacco Road’ seldom include so many scattered items that leave such a vivid impression.” The play was controversial, as it explored the principles of Eugenics, selective breeding and sterilization in humans. Ada, Jeeter’s wife, suffers from pellagra, a vitamin deficiency that causes dementia, among many other serious conditions. The couple’s daughter, Ellie May, has a harelip, and the family is unhealthily emaciated. The show was banned from traveling to many major cities, including Detroit and Chicago.

This long lasting hit would forever leave its mark on American popular culture. Henry Hull read a selection from Tobacco Road during the first television broadcast by RCA on July 7, 1936. Rae Solowey used to describe the farm in its earliest days as “Tobacco Road.”

Katherine Marshall
Associate Curator



Carnations and Lilies Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches, 1930.

Carnations and Lilies
Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches, 1930.

When asked how she and Ben met, Rae wrote to her friend, writer Helen Papashvilly, “On April 5, 1930, I was having dinner with this person, a mutual Philadelphia friend of Ben’s, in the area of 72nd St. when he said ‘Let’s stop and see my friend Ben Solowey, the artist,’ which we did do, only to have no one show! Nothing daunted, as they say, a month later, in the same general area, same routine but – an answering bell from Ben (his studio on the 5th floor) and looking up from the ground one, through a maze of banister – there was Ben. In retrospect, and accustomed as I am to Ben’s present studio, in itself an art work, created, if you will, by him, the 72nd St. one was rather – unobtrusive, but on the easel, a jewel-like still life Carnation and Lilies. It has become part of me. As we were leaving, he asked if I’d have dinner with him the next night, but I was doing something else. The next night? The magic sesame – at dinner – he asked me to marry him, Said he would have done so the first night – except for this Person’s presence! Difficult not to invoke the ‘what if’ syndrome – had Ben been off his premises the second time – that just might have been that.”

Read the whole story of their meeting here.

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