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ROBERT SPENCER (1879-1931)

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Robert Spencer (1879-1931)

Robert Spencer was born in 1879 in Nebraska, the son of a Swedenborgian minister. After a brief time studying medicine, he decided to pursue artistry and moved to New York City, where he enrolled at the National Academy of Design. Later he studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri at the New York School of Art. He moved to New Hope, Bucks County in 1906, and studied privately with the well-known Bucks County painter Daniel Garber. It was at the home of painter William L. Lathrop that Spencer met his future wife, Margaret Fulton, herself an accomplished architect.


For the next 25 years Spencer lived and worked in Bucks County, becoming one of the most prominent members of the Pennsylvania Impressionist art colony. He suffered several nervous breakdowns in the 1920s, and in 1931 took his own life.


His first success came in 1914, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased one of his major early canvases, "Repairing the Bridge". The celebrated collector Duncan Phillips then took an interest in Spencer's work, eventually purchasing eight of Spencer's canvases, currently housed in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.The two men became friends, and Phillips appointed Spencer to the Committee on Scope and Plan of the new gallery that he was building. 


Spencer also has work in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Carnegie Institute, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Detroit Institute of the Arts. In 1915, he won a gold medal at the prestigious Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.


Stylistically, Spencer differed radically from most of his Pennsylvania Impressionist colleagues. Probably influenced by Henri and the Ashcan School, Spencer made his reputation with skillful, evocative renderings of the everyday life of his community, often depicting the mills, tenements, and factories of New Hope and surrounding areas. "A landscape without a building or a figure, " he said, " is a very lonely picture to me."


Later Spencer painted more fanciful European scenes, many of which he did from his imagination, since he did not actually travel to Europe until 1925. Unfortunately Spencer struggled with mental health, and a failing marriage was what it took to push him to committing suicide in 1931. He is remembered as an artist whose impact was unique, and viewed as an important American artist.


Biography adapted from Brian Peterson, Senior Curator at the James A Michener Art Museum.



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