Ciliberti was inspired by the beauty he found at Morris Arboretum, Pastorius Park and Wissahickon Park. This piece by him is titled “Rose Garden” at Morris Arboretum.

by Len Lear

The Chestnut Hill area is absolutely filled with talented artists, but one of the most remarkable for many decades has been Michael V. Ciliberti, a Chestnut Hill painter whose stunning renderings of nature scenes, even in his 90s, were inspired by visits to Morris Arboretum, the Wissahickon Woods and Pastorius Park. Ciliberti, who told me last year that he was still painting four or five hours on a typical day, died on April 15 at the age of 94.

“I have kept myself in shape physically with swimming, playing, tennis, working out and being generally active,” told me in an interview last spring. “My passions for art and music and my love of nature and the beauty it presents to me keep me going. My wife, Valerie, is also an artist, and that has been an important part of our relationship ever since our courtship days. We are able to support, encourage and challenge each other to keep creating.”

Ciliberti, whose landscape works were in both oil and watercolor, exhibited his most recent works at Borrelli’s Chestnut Hill Gallery, 1 E. Gravers Ln., in April of 2019. Looking at the paintings, it’s easy to see why Ciliberti liked to quote famed educator William James, who wrote: “Scenery seems to wear in one’s consciousness better than any other element in life … I have often been surprised to find what a predominant role in my own spiritual existence it has played.”

Ciliberti grew up in South Philadelphia and graduated from Bok Vocational High School, where he studied commercial art. He then studied at Fleischer Art Memorial and later at the Barnes Foundation, followed by five years of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He made numerous trips to Italy and visited many of the great museums of European cities to observe the works of the great masters.

He first started exhibiting with the Philadelphia Abstract Artists in a series of group shows in Philadelphia and New York, but abstraction gave way to realistic representations of nature at Saranac Lake and his first solo show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Working watercolors al fresco and developing oils in his studio, Ciliberti has had several solo shows and has participated in many juried shows.

“I spent my childhood summers by the sea. I am fascinated by reflections in water and the effects of movement,” the artist explained. “My travels recently have taken me to scenery near water, be it oceanside or mountain lake. Working plein air with watercolor, the excitement of the moment can sometimes be captured with a surface freshness that is compelling.

“When I take this experience with some photographs back to the studio to start an oil painting, a different process evolves. What was once a momentary image spreads out to several months of shifting views. This slower process challenges me as I observe the intricacies sunlight can produce on water or land. Memories of the original experience slowly unfold.”

Ciliberti never taught art but did have a career in visual merchandising. He has had exhibits of his work locally at the Art Alliance, Artists’ House, FAN Gallery and Chestnut Hill Gallery. Ciliberti’s own favorite artists, past and present, were Giotto, Massaccio, Cezanne, Monet, Daniel Garber, Willem de Kooning, Winslow Homer and Joan Mitchell.

It is no surprise that Ciliberti’s daughter, Victoria, is an arts writer.

“My daughter is very devoted to the arts, and my two granddaughters are both active in the art world,” he said. “I am proud also of my other daughter, Julia, a world traveler and an engineer with the Coast Guard, who earned her degree in night school while holding a full-time job.”

When I asked him what person, past or present, he would most like to spend time with, he said humbly, “My father, who died when I was a teenager, was an Italian immigrant who did not speak English. But he was full of the excitement of being an Italian, and he loved the music and art his native country produced. Since my wife and I visited relatives in Italy and fell in love with the country, I would love to be able to talk with him about it and about the love of music and art that we share.’

In lieu of flowers, donations in Michel’s name may be made to Woodmere Art Museum, Morris Arboretum or Friends of the Wissahickon. You can reach Len Lear at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com.

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