PHILADELPHIA—Fern Coppedge painted the countryside around New Hope, Penn. She was especially well-respected for her snowy winter landscapes that vibrate with unexpected color. But her reputation faded after her death in 1951. “When we put together the Coppedge show [in 1990], we called it ‘A Forgotten Woman,’” says Brian Peterson, senior curator at the James A. Michener Museum, Doylestown, Penn.
Coppedge isn’t forgotten anymore. Auction prices for her paintings have been rising steadily since the late 1990s—and in December her winter landscape The Delaware Valley sold at auction for more than $300,000, a new high for the artist.
Experts say Coppedge is part of a “second wave” of Pennsylvania Impressionists, whose works have risen sharply in value during the past five-to-ten years—a group that includes Walter Baum, John Folinsbee and George Sotter, among others.
“There was an imbalance in the market,” says Alasdair Nichol, senior vice president and head of the paintings department at Freeman’s, the Philadelphia auction house where the Coppedge record was set. Nichol says prices for paintings by Pennsylvania Impressionists are just now catching up with those of American artists elsewhere.
“You had American Impressionists—[John Singer] Sargent, [John Henry] Twachtman— who were making hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars at auction,” observes Nichol, while paintings by Pennsylvania artists were fetching considerably less. “People then started noticing that their work seemed to be undervalued in the open market.”
The first Pennsylvania artists to benefit from this renewed interest were Daniel Garber and Edward Redfield. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were the leading figures of the so-called New Hope School and often painted outdoors in the countryside of Bucks County, north of Philadelphia.
Garber is the only Pennsylvania Impressionist whose work has topped the million dollar mark at auction, with Redfield not far behind. “Once that happened with Redfield and Garber,” says Nichol, “people started to look at other members of the school.”
Consider the case of Folinsbee: The New Hope painter won several national awards in the 1920s and ’30s and taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Ten years ago, Folinsbee’s river scenes and landscapes often sold for less than $10,000 at auction.
Then in May 2006, Sotheby’s sold Folinsbee’s painting The Bridge at New Hope for $296,000. The last few years have seen record prices for other Pennsylvania Impressionists, too. The large canvas Rapids in Winter, 1937, by Walter Schofield, fetched $456,000 dollars in December 2004; paintings by Roy C. Nuse and Sotter have topped $300,000 and $200,000, respectively.
Higher Prices Mirror Renewed Interest
Michener Museum’s Peterson says rising prices reflect a new level of interest in these painters outside New York City and Philadelphia—what he calls a “renationalizing” of interest in the New Hope school. “It’s a reinstating of their fame, back to where they were in their lifetimes,” maintains Peterson, noting that paintings by Redfield and Garber are owned by museums across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Pennsylvania Impressionists were largely overlooked after World War II and the rise of Modernism, when “plein air painting was seen as being old hat,” as Freeman’s Nichol says. The renewed appreciation for their work started in the 1990s, Peterson explains, and has gained impetus since a major exhibition called “Earth, River and Light: Masterworks of Pennsylvania Impressionism” was held at the Michener Museum in 2002.
“All of a sudden you see Sotheby’s and Christie’s including them in major sales,” said Peterson. “You see galleries all throughout the country—as far away as California—who have these artists in collections they’re selling.”
New York gallerist Hollis Taggart says he is surprised that prices for Pennsylvania Impressionists haven’t “tapered off, as many of us expected.” Still, Taggart believes interest in the painters remains largely regional, noting that “there’s a core group of collectors who are interested in artists of their own territory.”
Debra Force, of Debra Force Fine Art, Manhattan, believes there is a national market for paintings by Rae Sloan Bredin, Coppedge, Sotter and other previously obscure Pennsylvania Impressionists. “As interest in the school grows,” she says, “other artists are going to come to the forefront.”
But Force warns that the market could be due for a correction: “It remains to be seen if there will be a softening.”