Theresa F. Bernstein
In the Elevated, 1916
Oil on canvas
30 x 40 inches
Signed and dated lower right
Theresa Bernstein was born in Philadelphia, the only child of Isidore and Anne Bernstein. Her mother was an accomplished pianist and her father was in the textile business. Bernstein was interested in painting from an early age, and at the age of 13 she received her first commission, from the family doctor who asked for a portrait of his young niece. She would become an accomplished portraitist, and her 150 portrait commissions during the 1930s would serve to support her and her husband during the Depression years. After graduating from high school, Bernstein received a scholarship to attend the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now the Moore College of Art. In 1912, she moved to New York, where her parents had relocated, and she joined the Art Student’s League.
Bernstein was part of a group of women artists, called “The Philadelphia Ten,” or simply “The Ten.” The group’s title was a reference to “The Eight,” a group of artists whose art was more journalistic in nature, depicting New York City street scenes, typically based on life in the poor neighborhoods of the city. This movement was referred to as the Ashcan school. Interestingly, Bernstein’s work from 1912 until 1916 fits within the realm of the Ashcan School. However, “The Ten” members did not attempt to represent a certain artistic style or focus on a specific subject matter. The group aimed at a practical goal – to provide more venues for women artists’ work. Bernstein’s work was included in the first exhibition by the group on February 17, 1917 and she would continue as an active member until the group disassembled in 1945. Among the members, it was Bernstein’s work that was most frequently described as “masculine.” She sometimes signed her work with only her last name to ensure her gender was unknown.
In 1919, Bernstein married a fellow artist, William Meyerowitz, and worked to promote his work in addition to her own. The couple was part of two artists’ communities, in New York City, and in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They were friends with artists such as Stuart Davis, Oscar Bluemner, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Mark Rothko, and John Sloan. They exhibited their works with those of their good friends William and Marguerite Zorach in a “couples” exhibition and attended Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s art and social events.
Bernstein’s style is appealing for its timelessness, and while she depicted everyday New York scenes, her work does not fall within the category of social realism. As put forth in the brochure for an exhibit of her paintings and prints, along with her husband’s, in 1983, Bernstein’s work “…shows no trace of ‘isms’ of her time. She developed an independent, representational style, and her love of people and their day-to-day activities determined her choice of subject matter.” Further, her work is well-described in the following quote from the same brochure: “…the style is clear and representational and only occasionally swerves to reflect contemporary stylistic trends; the subjects, in general, are sensitive and often poignant depictions of American life” (New York Historical Society, New York Themes: Paintings and Prints by William Meyerowitz and Theresa Bernstein, October 5, 1983-February 26, 1984).
Theresa Bernstein wrote about her art in The Journal and provided insight into the background of In the Elevated. She describes how she took the elevated train to her studio on West 55thStreet: “To get to the studio, I took the elevated train. Climb up, get in, study the people on the train, and get off around 57thStreet” (Theresa Bernstein, The Journal:Theresa Bernstein Meyerowitz, Cornwall Press, New York, 1991: 58). She later explains that the elevated train on Columbus Avenue was the inspiration for the 1916 painting, which shows her mother in the foreground and her father reading a newspaper (Ibid: 61).