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Terra Incognita

Early Solowey Landscapes of Chester Springs

Crisp Day, Chester Springs
Oil on canvas, 13 x 16 in., 1924

It is well known that Ben won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in a painting competition judged by Edward Redfield and Alice Kent Stoddard in 1919. His three plus years there were Ben’s only formal art education, although he studied art history and techniques for the rest of his life. Ben enjoyed every day at the Academy and learned a great deal about the classical approach to art from teachers, many of whom were the leading modernists in the region. In our new exhibition, Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man: The Early Work of Ben Solowey opening June 9th, we will explore the effect the school, his teachers, and events at the Academy had on the young artist.
What we are just learning about as we research the exhibition is Ben’s time at the Academy Country School, commonly known as “Chester Springs.” When Ben started at the Academy, Chester Springs was relatively new, having been established by the Academy in 1917 as a summer school of open-air painting, an early-twentieth-century legacy of the impressionist movement. The Academy Country School’s emphasis was on plein air painting, but open-air figure study, still life, and animal painting were also offered. The site, where three historic natural springs emerge, occupied more than a hundred acres in Chester County, about six miles southwest of Phoenixville. It had been a medicinal spa before the American Revolution and served as a hospital during and after Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge. A former hotel on the site became a dormitory, while sheds and barns became studios. Tuition was low, and sessions generally lasted six weeks.
We know that Ben painted landscapes at Chester Springs, and perhaps other works as well. We intend on including all three extant Chester Springs landscapes in our new show. They are perhaps the earliest landscapes we have of Ben’s and the reveal a quickly maturing artist synthesizing his education and current art movements into his personal style.

Trees At Chester Springs Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in., c. 1925

Chester Springs’ solitude and its endless variety of nature may made a lasting impression on Ben, as the farm was similar in its colonial architecture, natural landscape, and relative solitude. For fellow painter and friend, Charles Ward, who studied at the Academy and Chester Springs just a few years after Ben, it certainly left a mark. “I remember the mud, the stillness, the light green of new leaves upon the willows along the creek,” wrote Ward to his fiancée in 1941. “I remember the thick trunked wet black barked willows. They were mostly trunk with their thick branches broken off with new lighter branches sprouting from the rugged trunks. One fellow said he’d be glad to get out of the place. A hell of a mud hole. But I thought the place was beautiful.”

See for yourself on June 9th, when we open our news show Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man: The Early Work of Ben Solowey from 1 to 5 pm. We will be also opening the Solowey home and fill it with home made refreshments as usual.

-David Leopold

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