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In 1906 a young painter named Robert Spencer moved from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the bucolic Bucks County region in nearby southeastern Pennsylvania. Over the next twenty-five years, Spencer became one of the most prominent artists in the Pennsylvania impressionist art colony, a group of nationally known landscape painters centered in the picturesque village of New Hope. His first major success came when the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Repairing the Bridge in 1914. He won a gold medal in 1915 at the prestigious Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. After Spencer's death, the celebrated collector Duncan Phillips praised him as "a rebel always against the standardized and stereotyped in art." Phillips believed that there was "no other painter, not John Sloan, or Edward Hopper, more pungently American in expression." In matters of style, Spencer differed radically from his Pennsylvania impressionist colleagues. He made his reputation with skillful, evocative renderings of the everyday life of his community, often depicting the mills, tenements, and factories of New Hope and the surrounding areas. "A landscape without a building or a figure," he said, "is a very lonely picture to me." Later Spencer began to experiment with a looser, more spontaneous style, and he painted more fanciful European scenes, many of which were done from his imagination. Spencer's canvas Mountebanks and Thieves won a prize at the 1926 Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh, and juror Pierre Bonnard said, "Mr. Spencer ...is in the full vigor of his talent, which is great. His art does not resemble European art, a rare fact in America." Spencer battled depression throughout his adult life and committed suicide in 1931. This book tells the story of Spencer's colorful yet tragic life, using as sources the written recollections of his two daughters as well as extensive new research. Illustrated with nearly seventy-five color images from major museums and private collections, the book examines the artist's work in depth, from his unformed beginnings to his mature New York City and European images. Extensive excerpts from his correspondence with Duncan Phillips and from press articles and reviews are also included, making The Cities, the Towns, the Crowds the definitive study of this important American painter.
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Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum, is the editor and principal author of Pennsylvania Impressionism, available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.
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