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The Green Tree: Highlights from the Collection of the Mutual Assurance Company of Philadelphia - April 2007
 
 
painting
 
Philip Pearlstein
(born 1924)
Alexander Cassatt, 1971
Oil on canvas, 31 × 25 inches
Signed and dated at lower left: “Perlstein/71”
Exhibited: “Framing the Board: A Look at Corporate Portraiture,” Mutual Assurance Company and Independence National Historic Park, Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, October 27, 1982–January 17, 1983, no. 32.
References: Garvan and Wojtowicz 1977, 81–82, color pl. Russell Bowman, Philip Pearlstein: The Complete Paintings (New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, 1983), no. 378, 40, illus.
RS 6239


Alexander Cassatt (1904–1985) was born in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, a descendant of the noted artist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). After graduating from Harvard University he entered his father’s Philadelphia brokerage firm. Cassatt served in the Navy during World War II, and returned to his career as a successful businessman. In addition to being a director of several prominent corporations, he was a trustee of Drexel University for thirty years and was awarded an honorary doctorate from that institution in 1973. He was elected a trustee of the Mutual Assurance Company in 1948, and was elected chairman of the board in 1969. Cassatt, who had seen Philip Pearlstein’s work at art exhibitions, selected the artist to paint his portrait for the Mutual Assurance Company in 1971, one year before he retired and moved to South Carolina.

Philip Pearlstein was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He won several art contests in high school and entered the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1942. His studies were interrupted by World War II, and in 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Pearlstein worked as a designer of visual aids for assembling weapons, signs, and charts, and was later stationed in Italy. He returned to the Carnegie in 1946, and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design in 1949. He then he moved to New York, shared living quarters with his former classmate Andy Warhol, and earned a master’s degree in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 1955. Pearlstein supported himself as a commercial artist and was a fairly successful abstract expressionist painter throughout the 1950s. He worked as a mechanical draftsman for Life magazine in 1957, and the following year won a Fulbright grant that enabled him to take an extended trip to Italy. Pearlstein returned to New York and taught at Pratt Institute from 1959 to 1963. He began to teach painting and drawing at Brooklyn College in 1963, becoming a full professor there in 1977. Pearlstein abandoned abstract expressionism during the early 1960s and began to paint the realist subjects for which he is now famous, monumental nudes set in studio interiors. These compositions, which earned him a position as a leading exponent of the new realism movement, are characterized by the use of unusual poses and vantage points; a radical cropping of figures; the use of accessories, such as colorful, patterned textiles; and an aura of psychological isolation.

Pearlstein’s biographer Russell Bowman noted that the early 1970s were “a period of intense experimentation with portraiture” for him.1 The artist produced forty-two portraits between 1970 and 1983—thirty-two of them between 1970 and 1975—many of which were included in a special exhibition held at the Allan Frumkin Gallery in New York City in 1976, “Pearlstein Portraits: 1972–1975 and Selected Studio Works.” The Frumkin Gallery was Pearlstein’s agent, and according to the contract negotiated by the gallery in March 1971, the artist agreed to paint Cassatt for the sum of $3,500, stipulating that “the sittings will take place at your home in Maryland and will be completed within a six month period, provided the sittings are within this period.”2 Pearlstein generally painted directly from his subjects and without relying on photographs or preparatory sketches. The sittings commenced in April, and the portrait was delivered to Cassatt on August 23. The image’s most striking features are the monumentality of the head, the close-up perspective, and the extremely detailed treatment of the face. The latter characteristic has a somewhat surprising source: in an interview published the same year he painted the portrait, the artist noted that he had been influenced by the early American naive tradition of portraiture because of its intense realism, and his impression that the self-taught practitioners of that style painted directly from their sitters.3

Notes

1. Russell Bowman, Philip Pearlstein: The Complete Paintings (New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, 1983), 7.

2. Allan Frumkin to Alexander J. Cassatt, March 25, 1971.

3. Ellen Schwartz, “A Conversation with Philip Pearlstein,” Art in America 59 (September–October 1971), 52–53.


  


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