Visu­al Arts

Edith Halpert, The Down­town Gallery, and the Rise of Amer­i­can Art

Rebec­ca Shaykin

January 1, 2013

The ques­tion What is Amer­i­can art?” might con­jure the hyper­re­al­ism of Raphaelle Peale and William Har­nett, the bold graph­ic style of Stu­art Davis and Jacob Lawrence, or the Pre­ci­sion­ist forms of Charles Sheel­er. Lit­tle known, how­ev­er, is that such notions of Amer­i­can art are sig­nif­i­cant­ly owed to a Russ­ian Jew­ish immi­grant named Edith Halpert. The founder of the Down­town Gallery in New York, Halpert shaped an iden­ti­ty for Amer­i­can art, declar­ing that its thrilling het­ero­gene­ity and demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues were what most dis­tin­guished it from the Euro­pean avant-garde.
For forty-plus years, Halpert’s gallery brought recog­ni­tion and mar­ket suc­cess to now-leg­endary Amer­i­can artists — among them Arthur Dove, Mars­den Hart­ley, and Geor­gia O’Keeffe, in addi­tion to the artists men­tioned above. She relent­less­ly cham­pi­oned non­white, female, and unknown artists and was a for­ma­tive advi­sor in the shap­ing of many of the nation’s most cel­e­brat­ed art muse­ums and col­lec­tions, from San Fran­cis­co to Boston. Not con­tent with those achieve­ments, she also pio­neered the appre­ci­a­tion and col­lect­ing of Amer­i­can folk art. 
Rich­ly illus­trat­ed with works that passed through her ground­break­ing gallery, this book tells the extra­or­di­nary and large­ly over­looked sto­ry of her career and lega­cy. The artists Halpert launched into the Amer­i­can canon are house­hold names — and this book com­pelling­ly argues that hers should be, as well.

Discussion Questions

I often think,” wrote artist Charles Sheel­er, where would any of us be if there were no Down­town Gallery?” This com­pan­ion vol­ume to the Jew­ish Museum’s recent exhi­bi­tion, which quotes Sheel­er, is a rich­ly-tex­tured appraisal of the Down­town Gallery’s vision­ary founder, Edith Halpert. Author Rebec­ca Shaykin high­lights Halpert’s long-obscured his­to­ry as a trail­blaz­ing gal­lerist and intre­pid cham­pi­on of Amer­i­can modernists. 

A Russ­ian Jew­ish immi­grant, Halpert helped sup­port her fam­i­ly dur­ing her ear­ly years in New York while study­ing art and form­ing last­ing friend­ships with artists. She opened her Down­town Gallery in 1926. As Shaykin’s account reveals, in her forty-year career as a gal­lerist, Halpert was a leader in myr­i­ad respects: as the first of a van­guard of pow­er­ful women art deal­ers; as one of the first gal­lerists to locate down­town, clos­er to work­ing artists; as a trust­ed advi­sor to key U.S. art patrons; as a savvy mer­chan­dis­er com­mit­ted to mak­ing art afford­able and gallery-going less intim­i­dat­ing; as an impas­sioned pro­mot­er of Amer­i­can mod­ernists at a time when Euro­pean art held sway; and as a pro­gres­sive whose recog­ni­tion of tal­ent embraced peo­ple of col­or, women, Jews and self-taught folk artists. 

Guid­ed by Shaykin’s metic­u­lous schol­ar­ship, this vivid­ly-illus­trat­ed vol­ume sup­ports a fuller appre­ci­a­tion of Halpert’s influ­ence. Read­ers will quick­ly rec­og­nize that art­works from the Down­town Gallery that appear in this rev­e­la­to­ry book — by such artists as Geor­gia O’Keefe, Jacob Lawrence, Stu­art Davis, and Ben Shahn — have shaped the iden­ti­ties of our most cel­e­brat­ed insti­tu­tions and con­tin­ue to grace their walls.