by JANE LENEL
Unlike the photograph albums we all have with pictures of our kids building snowmen and friends smiling cheese at the camera, Emilie Brégy’s albums bulge with pictures of large portraits she has painted of judges, high government officials and other notables, many of which hang in state and federal buildings and colleges throughout the country.
Along with 11 Commonwealth Court judges in Harrisburg and Thomas Pomoroy, former State Supreme Court Justice in Pittsburgh, these include — to name a varied few — Robert Goheen, ex-president of Princeton University and ex-ambassador to India; Dr. Philip Minter, president of the Australian Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Robert Saltman, renowned veterinarian and Director of Cattle Operation at Pfizer Pharmaceutical Co.; and Michael Baker, Jr., president of the board of trustees at Pennsylvania State College.
This large volume of work doesn’t include the numerous portraits Emilie (known also as “Kayo”) has painted of area friends, acquaintances and notables in the Chestnut Hill area while she was living in Blue Bell during the ‘50s – ‘70s. It also says nothing of the notoriety she gained from the many exhibits of her work.
A smattering of her pictures of Chestnut Hill area residents includes: Raymond Shafer, ex-PA governor: Philip Price; ex-PA State Senator; Edward E. Russell, Common Pleas Court Judge, now retired; Dr. Paul Meyer, director of the Morris Arboretum; Mrs. William Austin, wife of the former owner of Beaumont retirement community in Bryn Mawr; Elizabeth Price Martin, first president of the Garden Club of America (Brégy’s grandmother); Dr. Ruth Patrick Van Dusen, intertnationally known scientist and limnologist; and Dr. Charles Peterson, Philadelphia architect. (That portrait hangs in Carpenter Hall.)
Added to these are the paintings filling every wall in Emilie’s apartment at Cathedral Village in upper Roxborough: large portraits of her four children — Phyllis, Carol, Joan and Anne — other relatives and particularly interesting portraits of two young children, followed by paintings a generation later of the same children’s children at the same age.
Along with these portraits are numerous abstract watercolor scenes of Maine, where Emilie summered for over 20 years, and impressionistic paintings inspired by sights in countries around the world where she and her Philadelphia lawyer husband Philip traveled.
Added to these are many portraits hanging on the walls plus more stored away in boxes in closets. And more will surely be coming. “I am uncomfortable if I’m not painting,” Emilie said, indicating at age 91 that she has no thought of stopping — and awaits a November exhibit of her work at Cathedral Village (open to the public at 600 E. Cathedral Rd).
Speaking of the way she approaches her watercolor abstractions, she explained, “They start in my mind. I think of rocks, trees, seagulls or sailboats, for example, and they become shapes – or whatever pops into my head.”
Sometimes she starts with grids of different pale colors as background and then paints objects – perhaps flowers – over parts of them. The resulting interaction of colors creates different shades of hues to the viewer. “Painting is experimenting,” she declared.
About painting portraits — getting true likenesses, the expression in people’s eyes, their smiles, the relation of the parts of their bodies — she said, “The job is observing. I get to know people first – talk to them, look hard at them and their photographs, and have to do a lot of memorizing. They pose at least five times, and it all takes a couple of months, though some can take a year.”
For the judges, she explained, “I went to several courts in Harrisburg to look at them and listen, and later got to know them talking, having lunch, etc. I couldn’t hear their cases and paint at the same time.” Strangely, one particular concern she noted was getting the folds in their robes right and how they hung.
Such painting, of course, takes know-how, to say nothing of talent, which Emilie Brégy acquired over many years of study. Her introduction to art started when her father took her out of her senior year in the Catholic boarding school in Noroton, Conn., she was attending and sent her to Italy with an international group of about 25 teenagers to “La petite école” in Florence. “It was a type of finishing school. We studied the history of Italy, visited museums, traveled and learned Italian and French.”
Following that she went to Tyler School of Art, married Philip and later became a guide, for 25 years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When her four children were babies, she stayed home and took a three-year art correspondence course, and when they needed no more mothering in their 30s and 40s, she attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Now, living at Cathedral Village with its college courses and numerous other activities for residents, Emilie has no trouble keeping busy. However her prime busy-ness centers on the business of painting. And the portraits keep flowing. Also, though her children all live in different parts of the country, she always has their good company hanging on the walls.
Emile Brégy can be reached at 215-984-8407.