by Sally Cohen
Jessie Drew-Bear (1879-1962), born Jessie Henderson, the 13th of 14 children, came from London to the U.S. in 1906 with her young daughter and in 1910 opened the highly successful London Flower Shop at 18th and Chestnut Streets, which they owned for more than 40 years. In 1938, when she was 59 years old, her daughter gave her a paint set for Christmas — and from there her career took off.
Largely self-taught, Drew-Bear was a “sophisticated primitive” whose work expressed a frankness of vision, wild whimsy and unrestrained approach to diverse subjects, from personal narratives to cityscapes and fairy tales. “Stories and Dreams,” which will be on view March 23 to July 13 at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., brings together the largest body of work by the artist ever exhibited.
Drew-Bear was socially well connected, and she spent a few months every year in Europe. She painted in Greece, French Riviera, Holland, etc., and spent most of her summers in Venice with her poodle in tow, but she maintained a home and studio in New Hope. At age 75 she learned to scuba dive so she could paint marine life accurately on canvas.
Her work was embraced by the art establishment, highly unusual for a self-taught artist who began painting so late in life, and was exhibited at galleries in Caracas, Paris, Venice, New York and Philadelphia as well as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art (Hartford, Conn.), Phildelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Art Alliance, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Miami Museum of Modern Art, etc.
While she was largely self-taught, Drew-Bear briefly took lessons from prominent Philadelphia artist Arthur B. Carles at the start of her career and spent a month painting in the atelier of French artist Fernand Léger in 1949. Drew-Bear’s social personality, paired with her joyfully expressive and direct canvases, earned her the title “sophisticated primitive.” Her canvases express not only her joyful celebration of life, but also her sincere love of painting.
Drew-Bear’s artistic circle included other well-known self-taught or “primitive” painters, including Grandma Moses, whose work was shown alongside Drew-Bear’s work in a 1945 exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum (Montclair, N.J.); and Horace Pippin, whose dealer, Robert Carlen, also represented Drew-Bear.
Her 23-year career included more than 15 solo exhibitions, and her work is included in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and PAFA’s collections. During her lifetime, Drew-Bear’s work was acquired by prominent gallery owners and art collectors, including Albert Duveen and Sidney Janis.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring the first critical discussion of the artist’s practice by William R. Valerio, the Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO of Woodmere Art Museum; Rachel McCay, Woodmere assistant curator; John Ollman, owner of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery; and Sarah McEneaney and Bill Scott, Philadelphia artists.
Also on view, through June 1: “Quita Brodhead: Bold Strokes,” a tribute to the Philadelphia abstractionist and her vibrant body of work; and “Women and Biography,” showcasing the strength of Woodmere’s collection of work by female Philadelphia artists.
Woodmere Art Museum is located at 9201 Germantown Ave. Admission to special exhibitions is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, and free for students, children and Museum members; exhibitions in the Founder’s Gallery and Helen Millard Children’s Gallery are free.
Museum hours are: Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.–8:45 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. An open house will be held Saturday, April 26, 2 to 4 p.m., at Woodmere. For more information, visit woodmereartmuseum.org or call 215-247-0476.