Mural commission for the lobby of 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia (detail), 1973-1974, by Edith Neff. Image courtesy of Woodmere Art Museum.

by George McNeely

The retrospective of the paintings of Philadelphia artist Edith Neff is closing on Sunday, January 19, at the Woodmere Art Gallery. Now is the time to visit.

Edith Neff (1943-1995) grew up in Philadelphia and studied painting at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts). She taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art and sadly died of cancer at age 53.

Her painting career spanned the decades when abstraction largely ruled American art: Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Color Field painting, etc. But she remained stubbornly figurative to the end, emerging from a long tradition in Philadelphia while finding her own artistic vision.

Her paintings are of family, friends, and sometimes strangers, arranged in groupings in real locations around Philadelphia. They are grounded in the places she knew and loved: the streets of Center City, Fairmount Park, and public fountains and pools. She brings to these familiar settings her particular eye.

She was inspired by the old master, Impressionist and American paintings she saw in our local museums and studied at school. It is interesting to try to spot such references in her work.

The catalogue notes works by Peter Paul Rubens, Agnolo Bronzino, Jacques-Louis David and our very own Thomas Eakins, who has now entered the canon of great Western painters. But she may have also been looking to certain seminal works by the 19th-Century French painter Edouard Manet and Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

How a figure (or figures) is placed within a setting is a primary challenge of figurative and portrait painting. Neff used photography to find compelling images of people she then collaged in her paintings.  The result is figures both in their settings and slightly removed, a tension that appears in both those artists’ works.

A century earlier, Manet had placed four people into his iconic “Dejeuner sur l’herb” (1863), now at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Those four friends picnicking in a park, including two improbably naked women (perhaps prostitutes?), inhabit planes that are curiously disconnected from their landscape setting, just as Neff’s sitters sometimes seem to float in Fairmount Park or on Philadelphia streets.

Her work also evokes the great early 19th-Century Spanish painter, Francisco Goya. His portraits of the Spanish royal family and courtiers emerge from the grand European portraiture traditions established earlier by Rubens and Anthony Van Dyke, but are intriguingly updated for Goya’s time.

As in Neff’s paintings, Goya’s sitters can be oddly juxtaposed, sometimes connecting more with the viewer than their settings – or isolated altogether.  A prime example is his huge group portrait of the oddly provincial Spanish royal family in 1800, now in the Prado. Google it. What can possibly be happening in that painting?

That group portrait is evoked in Neff’s panoramic mural for the lobby of what was then the University City Science Center, completed in 1974, that includes many people inhabiting the streetscape but also compellingly independent.

Neff’s world is far more appealing than that Spanish court, despite the changing Philadelphia they depict. And Neff was clearly observing the work of contemporary figurative painters such as Alice Neal, Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein.

Do not miss the smaller works: the pastel studies on the balcony at Woodmere, the beguiling portrait of the Dalmatian named Oliver, and her own early self-portrait from 1967 at the entrance to the exhibition. That painting offers simple planes of color and the effects of sunlight on her legs and chair in one of the most compelling works in the exhibition.

Go before this exhibition closes and explore Neff’s paintings for yourself.