by Carla Robinson
The latest show from the Woodmere Art Museum, George Biddle: The Art of American Social Conscience, opening on Saturday, September 24, presents an impressive exhibit from one of Philadelphia’s foremost artists.
Born into wealth and privilege, Biddle lived a life in which he had extraordinary access to those of power and influence, but developed a distinctly progressive approach to his work and life.
“Biddle was born into one of the most distinguished families in Philadelphia, and indeed the world, and he enjoyed all the privileges that generational wealth can bestow,” said Bill Valerio, director and CEO of the Woodmere and chief curator of the exhibit. “Yet he became one of the most culturally open and liberal artists of his generation.”
In a career that spanned the middle decades of the 20th century, Biddle had close contact with leading celebrities in the art world and with important figures in progressive politics, and he himself became a leading voice in American art. He sat in the front row in history – and participated in the important movements in the art of his time.
In the first decades of the 20e century, Biddle was just old enough for artist and family friend Mary Cassatt to introduce him to Renoir, Degas and the avant-garde of Paris. He attended the first exhibitions that gave the world Cubism and Futurism, and he attended the Armory Show in New York in 1913.
“If he goes to Paris, who will take him under her wing but Mary Cassatt, who was the only American artist at the center of the formation of French Impressionism?” said Valerio. “She was actually the queen of the art world. She was in a position to say, ‘oh, well, you should meet Monet’. I think that’s really what Biddle, a young man who had gone to Groton… [boarding school] and to Harvard, on this path, and realize that art is really his calling.”
Returning to the United States, Biddle became a New York bohemian for a time, wandering the speakeasies of Greenwich Village and the jazz clubs of the Harlem Renaissance. He then went on to paint with the great muralist Diego Rivera in Mexico, where he learned very personally that politics can be deadly.
“Here he was in Mexico painting with Rivera for a while” [Leon] Trotsky was in exile there,” said Valerio. “Then Trotsky is murdered by… [Joseph] Stalin’s accomplices. He saw very clearly that Stalin was a bad and cruel dictator.”
According to Valerio, Biddle believed that art and creative thinking were the fundamental ingredients of a fair and just society.
“In many ways, I think Biddle represents the best of Philadelphia culture,” said Valerio. “While he was not a Quaker himself, he lived a life of Quaker values - of tolerance, openness and humility.”
It was Biddle who encouraged his Harvard classmate, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to put artists to work to revive the American economy during the Great Depression. And then he served as a capable administrator in that initiative and served on many federal committees shaping the Works Progress Administration and other federal arts initiatives.
Biddle undertook his own projects in Brazil, Mexico, Haiti, Italy, Tahiti, India and Hollywood (along with film director John Ford), then became a war correspondent for To live and To look magazines during World War II.
Later, his drawings as a courtroom artist at the Nuremberg Trials are among the most intense works in the show, and are gifts from the artist’s family to Woodmere.
Along the way, his friends George and Ira Gershwin invited him to illustrate the first publication of the libretto for Porgy and Bessand on a visit to India in the late 1950s, he painted a portrait of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Valerio described Biddle’s art as “heavy at times.”
“But it opens the mind to the beauty of new ideas and to the questions of complicated histories,” he said.
The opening on September 24 is scheduled from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM. For more information, visit woodmereartmuseum.org.