Of the many people who walk past 542 Hamilton St. in Allentown, few would give a second glance to the Victorian era building that was once the home of the Empire Beauty School, except for those who might look up in a spare moment and wonder about the nude sculpture of a woman in the upper window.
Behind that large second floor arched window, which from the inside offers a fine view of the handsome Art-Deco American eagles on the facade of the Americus Hotel, is the gallery and foundation of the late Antonio Salemme (1892-1995), an Italian-American artist who was one of the most prominent artists of the 1920s and 30s.
Among Salemme’s best known works are of African American singer/actors Ethel Waters and Paul Robeson. Although Waters and Robeson were well-known in the 20s and 30s, they had faced racism even at the height of their popularity.
In 1962, unhappy with the New York art world’s turn to extreme abstraction and Pop Art, Salemme moved permanently with his wife Martha to a converted rural schoolhouse that had been a summer home in Williams Township, Northampton County. He continued to create there until his death.
Allentown artist Joseph Skrapits, who met the artist in 1982, (it was Salemme who encouraged and mentored him in art) was inspired by the man and his vision. Working closely with Martha Salemme, who died in 2004, Skrapits and others dedicated themselves to preserving the artist’s works and the story of his life. Shortly before his death, Salemme told him the work he had done in the Lehigh Valley, mostly painting, was “the most creative period of his life.”
Salemme was born on November 2, 1892, in Gaeta, Italy, a much fought-over seaport town whose roots went back into antiquity. At the age of four he left with his family and immigrated to Newton, Massachusetts. Growing up it was clear to his father that his son had a talent for art.
At age 13 Salemme entered the Eric Pape Art School in Boston and later moved on to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. There he studied under George L. Noyes, a leading Boston impressionist. Showing an interest in sculpture, and feeling he could not get adequate training in America like many artists of the day, he left to study in Europe. After traveling and studying in France, Spain and Italy, he entered the studios of prominent sculptors in Rome.
According to Skrapits, Salemme was among the many young sculptors who, in 1913, worked on the frieze work of Rome’s Victor Emmanuel Monument, a huge classical marble temple of a building designed to honor Italy’s first king and a reunited Italy. Because its shape resembled that of a contemporary writing machine, Romans then and now refer to it as “the typewriter.”
Salemme was in Rome in 1915 when Italy joined the Allied cause against Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I. Caught up in the spirit of the time he enlisted in the Italian Army and was sent as a photographer with an artillery unit. His primary task was to record the actions of his fellow soldiers at the front in the Alps where they faced the Austrian Army.
Being an artist Salemme could not confine himself to taking artillery pictures. Among the prize possessions of the Salemme Foundation is a scrapbook of photos taken by the artist between 1915 and 1919, showing the life and death of fellow soldiers.
Anyone wanting to do an illustrated edition of Ernest Hemmingway’s classic novel about the Italian front, “A Farewell to Arms,” could do a lot worse than Salemme’s photos. There are stately mounted officers with long mustaches in quaint snow-covered mountain villages. Battlefield photos include a long trench with a line of gas mask wearing soldiers.
“To me these photos say World War I like nothing else,” says Skrapits, as he pages through the almost 100 year old album.
With the war’s end Salemme returned to America. He settled in New York’s Greenwich Village and began to practice his craft. The 1920s were a flourishing time in that enclave of art and artists and Salemme became part of it. He was particularly attracted to the emerging African American art and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.
It was in 1927 that he did his head of Ethel Waters in bronze. Although then primarily known from her work as a singer in Harlem nightclubs, she was showing signs of her future talent. Waters had this to say about Salemme's sculpture in her autobiography, “His Eye is on the Sparrow:”
“Working with his fingers in clay, Tony had brought out much of what I’d been like as a girl and was now like as a woman. It was my portrait in bronze shaped by affectionate and intuitively wise and sympathetic hands.”
The Robeson statue- a full length nude finished in 1930- caused a shockwave in art circles and among the general public who found the absence of a fig leaf too daring. A Philadelphia art museum that had accepted it sent it back. Salemme could not find a museum willing to take the Robeson piece and it disappeared into Europe just before World War II, where he had sent it in search of a buyer. Today recognized as perhaps his greatest sculpture, the art world bemoans its disappearance.
With the rise of abstract painting and sculpture Salemme’s realistic style fell out of favor. Turning his back on New York critics, he spent the rest of his long life painting in Williams Township. Today there is a revival of interest in his work and in 2010 the current gallery opened to the public. It is a tribute to a life in art.