A centennial birthday and still painting

by Len Lear
Posted 11/2/23

“I will be there at Borrelli's Chestnut Hill Gallery on Nov. 11 if I am still alive and kicking,” artist Phil Cohn said about his upcoming 100th birthday.

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A centennial birthday and still painting


“I will be there at Borrelli's Chestnut Hill Gallery on Nov. 11 if I am still alive and kicking,” artist Phil Cohn said last week about his upcoming 100th birthday celebration.

Cohn probably will not be doing much kicking, though, because the centenarian will be surrounded by friends and admirers during an event open to anyone who would like to view his artwork - and wish him well. 

Cohn's impressionistic paintings have been shown at the Chestnut Hill gallery, One East Gravers Lane, for 60 years. (Back then it was called the Hahn Gallery.) There have been countless exhibits of his work over the years, including a major show, “My Life's Work,” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from Nov. 25, 2022, until April 2 of this year. Several of Cohn’s pieces are in the permanent collection of the Old City Jewish Art Center.

Cohn was even mentored by the legendary Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), whose collection of paintings by now-famous impressionists including  Renoir, Matisse and Cezanne can be seen at the Barnes Foundation museum, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Barnes, a medical doctor and pharmacologist who grew up in Kensington, made a fortune by inventing an antiseptic and spent most of his money on Impressionist art by artists who were little-known at the time, but who are now world-renowned.) 

“I attended classes, and Barnes was there all the time (at the Barnes Foundation),” Cohn said. “He really knew his art, but you did not want to cross him. He had a temper. But no matter what kind of guy he was, he collected the most amazing art, the cream of the crop.” The Barnes collection is valued at more than $30 billion, according to philanthropyroundtable.org.

Cohn’s house, which he shares with his niece, Marlene Kalick, is filled with dozens of sketchbooks and more than 500 pieces of his Impressionist artwork, which fill up virtually every inch of wall space. His art is characterized by bold brush strokes and colors that create dazzling effects of light. At age 100, Cohn still paints in his upstairs studio for three to four hours every day.

His subject matter ranges from the Mummers Parade on New Year's Day to Italian beach scenes. He was particularly influenced by the French, Dutch and Italian Impressionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Cohn is the son of immigrants who both came here as young adults, his father from Russia and his mother from France. His family settled in Vineland, New Jersey, and Cohn was born in 1923, the youngest of five sons. Vineland was home to several Jewish-owned farm settlements at the time. Cohn was always drawing, even before going to art school, copying panels from “Flash Gordon,” “Tarzan” and other comic books.

When Cohn was 18, he was drafted into the Army at the beginning of World War II, as were three of his four brothers. Cohn was stationed in Antwerp, Belgium. Brother Joe was shot more than once in Italy. Brother Bernie was in the Marines in the Pacific, and Al was in the Navy in the Pacific. “We all came back alive,” Cohn said, “although Joe was pretty badly hurt. Everybody was affected by the war. I almost fell over when Joe came to visit me in Belgium. I loved all my brothers, but Joe was really special. He was the most wonderful person. Joe and I came to Philly after the war. One other brother, Sid, was a sign painter.”

After the war, Cohn came to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, thanks to the G.I. Bill. In 1947,  he began submitting his paintings to local competitions, which is how Albert Barnes noticed his work and accepted him into the Barnes Foundation. Like most young artists, Cohn was not able to make a viable living after graduation by his art alone, so he worked at night for a printing company, Big City Press, where he supervised the art department. He painted during the day. 

Cohn, who has no children, met his second wife, Collette, an immigrant from Paris, at a dance. They spent many years traveling around Europe and were married for 42 years until her death in 2017. “I was married to the most wonderful person,” he told us. “I still miss her every day.”

According to Joe Borrelli, owner of the Chestnut Hill Gallery, “Phil Cohn is an extraordinary artist and person. We have represented him for decades because he has been painting at such a high level for so long, and he is still producing great work at the age of 100. Not too many artists anywhere can say that. He is a treasure.”

For more information, visit philipcohnartist.com or chestnuthillgallery.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com