by Len Lear and Karen Plourde
Philadelphia is full to overflowing with great artists, but it is doubtful that any have have had the longevity of Philip Cohn, 93, who was recently honored at his alma mater, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) with a retrospective that spanned his 70 years as an artist featuring the premiere of “A Lifetime of Impressions,” a documentary film about his rise as a brilliant impressionist.
Chestnut Hill area art lovers will be able to appreciate Cohn’s work in “Phil Cohn, A Lifetime of Impressions,” an exhibit that will debut with a reception on Saturday, April 1, 6 to 8 p.m. at Borrelli’s Chestnut Hill Gallery, One East Gravers Lane.
Cohn first saw the works of French and Italian giants like Renoir, Cezanne, Masaccio and Bellini while serving in World War II. Those classic paintings influenced him to continue his art education and fueled a desire to make art that has lasted for 70 years. “Traditions are very important for an artist to be influenced by,” he told us in an earlier interview. “It’s a learning process. It’s an education process.”
“A Lifetime of Impressions” showcases Cohn’s renderings, many of which are classic scenes in and around Philadelphia — Mummers marching on Broad Street, bathers at the Jersey Shore and lunchers at Reading Terminal Market, for example. Those paintings start as sketches that Cohn then takes back to his studio in and expands upon.
“It’s work, but…like a child likes work, y’know, he gets involved with it, and before you know it, you’re lost in a picture, and you try to develop it, as far as you can go,” Cohn said.
A native of Vineland, N.J., Cohn came to Philadelphia as a teenager, finished high school and was drafted into the Army. He said he always drew but that his first experience with seeing important pictures happened in Paris at the Musee Nationale d’Art Moderne, part of which opened during World War II.
Inspired by the European masters, Cohn studied at both PAFA and The Barnes Foundation in the late 1940s. In 1949 he was awarded the Cresson European Scholarship for painting, which afforded him the opportunity to study abroad. He went on to study traditional Italian painting techniques in Florence, Italy, in the 1950s.
Cohn’s subject matter has been comprised of “everyday people doing everyday activities,” as he explained it. He creates scenes that viewers can immediately identify with as he also strives to incorporate influences of Italian, French, and Dutch styles of painting. Although he uses these various regions for his inspiration, he ultimately depicts the world from the everyday American experience. His life in Philadelphia, coupled with his international studies, have given him a worldly foundation for his subjects. He is master at portraying the human condition.
“Whatever period they (the artists) were in, I always felt that I got something out of it, hopefully,” he told us. “As far as teachers go, the teachers can’t teach you art. They can only try to inspire you for a direction.”
Cohn highly values his studies at the Barnes and its scientific approach to looking at a picture. “When he (Albert Barnes) talks about Renoir, how Renoir was influenced early by Courbet and Manet, you can see it, and that’s why it’s so good at the Barnes because you have the paintings right there in front of you.”
To help support himself, Cohn worked nights at a printing shop owned by a classmate at PAFA and painted during the day. He and his wife, Colette, traveled all over the world before health and age sidelined them. Those travels also influenced his work. “Wherever I go, I draw, get many ideas,” Cohn said. “I go to museums wherever I am, and there’s much to draw upon, especially in Europe, their traditions of buildings and the way the people live … People, places, events are my starting point for composing a picture…Wherever I am, I become part of the living environment involved in the everyday world.”
Regardless of the category he’s placed in, Cohn is a firm believer in approaching painting like any other job. “It’s just a question of working,” he insisted. “It’s working, working, working, and there is enjoyment in the sense that it has to be done and that in the trying there are many failures, but there are some I feel are successful.”
“Phil Cohn, A Lifetime of Impressions” can be viewed at the Chestnut Hill Gallery through April 22. For more information, call 215-248-2549, or visit www.chestnuthillgallery.com