The winter art exhibition at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center’s Bendel mansion galleries features over sixty paintings by the prolific still life painter Sophy Regensburg (1885-1974) that are on display through March 19, 2023. Here we enter the world of exquisite still life paintings that radiate glowing color with lively patterning and compositional design.
Throughout the galleries, Sophy Regensburg’s still life paintings speak to skillful and careful artistic precision and arrangement. The tabletops and backgrounds have intricate, whimsical patterning and serve as a backdrop for perfectly arranged plates, decanters, bottles, baskets or vases that hold depictions of fruits, whiskey, wine and sprigs of flowers.
Her paintings are recognizably one-dimensional compositions with objects that have a flattened quality to them; this has inevitably lent itself to labeling the painter’s work as minimalist and primitive. Her New York Time’s obituary from 1974 states outright that she was an “American primitive artist”; while others have termed her work simply as folk art. Perhaps there is more going on here.
Regensburg was not a renegade artist. She studied drawing in her youth and was taught by William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, two very different American painters whose subject matter and style were strikingly divergent; yet she did not pursue an artistic career until later in life. With her marriage to a successful New York businessman in her early twenties, Sophy delved into an Upper East Side life of motherhood and volunteer work.
Throughout this time, she avidly pursued hobbies such as needlework, knitting and rug making; clearly a precursor to the patterning and design style that we see in her paintings. It was not until after she was widowed in 1949 that Sophy would embark on a serious twenty-three year career of painting with a remarkable output of over five hundred works. Her paintings were widely exhibited in well-known New York galleries. Babcock and Martha Jackson Galleries exhibited one woman shows, and many of the works landed in American museums such as the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, and Smith College Museum of Art, to name a few.
At first glance we see how Sophy was an obsessively controlled painter whose deliberate and carefully precise compositional arrangements leave nothing to chance. And yet there is a clear painterly quality that vividly stands out. A close look at the artist’s dainty floral and leaf designs seen in her tabletops, tablecloths and backgrounds are a direct outgrowth of the repetition of patterning and stitch work in rug hooking, knitting and needlework; Sophy’s avid hobbies.
Minimalist? Yes; in so far as the artist paints just a few pieces of perfectly ripe fruit or a few stems of a flowers. Perfectionist? Yes; as Regensburg arranges her compositions precisely. And she rarely lets the passage of time overripen her fruits or allow her flowers to droop with age. Sophy’s paintings depict flattened objects that are precisely planned and painted in one dimensional form. In the hands of a less talented painter this deliberateness could have led to bland, uninteresting works. But not here – for Sophy Regensburg managed to impart exquisite design, striking color, and a spark of childlike whimsy and fun to so many of these cabinet size paintings. From the patterns of whimsical florals and leaves to the use of persimmon reds, mustard yellows, glowing golds, and mellow blues – this is what enlivens her paintings.
She may have been labeled as a primitive or a folk artist, but her paintings speak to a mid-twentieth century update of the long tradition of still life painting. It is a tradition that grew from the lavishly painted seventeenth century Dutch works with their symbols of the passage of time and man’s mortality; and would continue with the nineteenth century French Impressionist painters Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet and their sculptural, sensualist still life paintings. On American shores the late nineteenth century painters John Peto and William Harnett brought a hyper realistic and trompe l’oeil style to their still life works portraying objects such as newspapers, books, pipes, photographs, and violins.
Sophy Regensburg takes hold of this still life tradition but brings forth a unique American style; one of vibrant color, carefully planned design and distinctive patterning. Her paintings are fully in sync with the sleek, clean look of midcentury modern aesthetic. They would be the right wall decor for 1950’s and 1960’s living spaces.
Imagine a living room of glass windows, teak furniture, boldly colored, geometric patterned rugs and Sophy’s still life paintings lining the walls. Her paintings of whiskey in decanters, after all, are reminiscent of the popular cocktails of that time. An urge for a cocktail – make it an Old Fashioned, and a small slice of cherry pie would not be out of order!
To label her paintings primitive, minimalist or that they are folk art, is simplistic. Seen in the context of their time – the 1950’s and 1960’s – their ode to mid-century modern is perhaps more fitting.
Lynn Villency Cohen is a writer and art historian. She is a member of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center Board of Directors, and serves as Curatorial Chair of the Exhibitions & Collections Committee.