Diane P. Fischer, new chief curator of the recently redesigned and re-opened Allentown Art Museum, has had her work cut out for her.
By hanging “Essegney, Near Charmes, Vosges, France,” a huge painting of the French countryside by 19th century expatriate Lehigh County artist Peter Alfred Gross offered unique challenges. “For one thing” says Fischer, rolling her eyes almost imperceptibly to the ceiling at the memory, “it weighs 250 pounds.” Not exactly the type of art work that can be hung by hammering a nail in the wall.
Despite the initial difficulty, the shared efforts and elbow grease of the museum staff assured that the task was done. Today after many years of obscurity it hangs as its artist, who gave it to the community in 1909, intended. It is only fitting that with both Allentown’s 250th anniversary and Lehigh County Bicentennial coming in 2012, this venerable work of art by one of our native sons, an internationally recognized artist in his day, is finally getting the exposure it deserves.
The history of Peter Gross’s massive painting, despite its size, was not an easy one to trace. According to Fischer the painting was first shown at the Paris Salon of 1892. Gross, who considered it his masterpiece, had been living in France since 1877. Gross was born in Schnecksville in 1849. His grandfather was Durs Rudy, a well-known Pennsylvania German artist.
Gross’s talent was recognized early but opportunities for artists in America were limited. He studied engraving and traveled in Ohio and West Virginia making sketches for sweeping pictorial maps of communities known as bird’s eye views. Eventually Gross opened a lithography business in Toronto, Canada. In 1877, perhaps recognizing he needed more training, Gross left to study art in France. So many would-be American artists were studying there that critic and novelist Henry James noted in 1889 that the best place to see American artists and the work of American artists was in Paris.
Once in Paris, to make ends meet, Gross took a position teaching English at a well-known language academy founded and run by his uncle Charles Rudy. Rudy was an expert in many languages and instruction by his school was much sought after by French businessmen and members of European nobility.
Sources suggest Gross’s formal art training in France was with two well-known artists of the time, Edmond Yon, an engraver and landscape painter, and Edmond Petitjean, a creator of many seascapes of French port towns. This makes sense to Fischer “He would probably have studied with a French master,” she says.
Both Yon and Petitjean were participants in the Paris Salon art exhibits and may have helped make Gross known. Gross’s first painting to make it to the Paris Salon, “The First Snow at Nemours” was unveiled in 1883.
The Salon was not just an art event. It also put the stamp of French high society on an artist and on their work. When all the judges in frock coats gazed through their monocles and nodded approvingly, it was official recognition that assured collectors of the artist’s status.
Gross settled in France, married a French woman and had a son. And he continued over the next 35 years to turn out French landscapes. But no one would confuse Gross’s style of art with Monet and the Impressionists. And just before his death in 1914, he made a scathing comment on the work of Cezanne, then just coming into vogue.
Peter Blume, the former art director of the Allentown Art Museum who held an exhibition of Gross’s work in1978, admits the artist was not always at his best. “Like all of us he had his days. Some of the paintings are really, really good and some of them are not,” he noted in a recent phone interview.
In the later part of his life Gross became a major advocate for the establishment of an art museum in Allentown. It is for that reason that he sent his masterpiece to the city.
At Gross’s funeral in Allentown on January 30, 1914 over 1,000 people turned out. He was cremated and buried at the Unionville Church in Neffs.
Unfortunately, although Gross’s gift was appreciated, apparently no one knew exactly what to do with a painting that big His painting was put in storage at least part of the time in the basement of a local elementary school.
In the 1970s Blume found Gross’s masterpiece stored in the basement of the old Lehigh County Courthouse. “It had a tag on it, # 1, apparently designating it as the first donation to the museum,” Blume recalls. Because somewhere along the way it had been improperly rolled, the huge painting had developed cracks.
Blume sent the painting to Caroline Keck’s art conservation center in Cooperstown, New York. The center was among the best there was. “Mrs. Keck and her husband Sheldon Keck were two of the most influential conservators of the modern era,” the New York Times noted in her 2008 obituary. Skillfully the Kecks and their staff were able to breathe life back into Peter Gross’s much neglected canvas.
Fischer has placed Gross’s painting in a prominent place in the museum, one that visitors to the gallery can’t miss. And on recent fall afternoon a floor full of students from local grade schools sat gazing upward at Peter Gross’s masterpiece and learning art from it.
Although Gross has been dead for almost 100 years, perhaps it can be said that with the proper display of “Essegny, Near Charmes, Vosges, France” at the Allentown Art Museum, an institution he was among the first to envision, the spirit of the expatriate from Schnecksville has truly come home.