Hugh Henry Breckenridge

American, 1870 - 1937
Fine Art as an Investment: Hugh Henry Breckenridge (1870-1937)
by Lisa Bush Hankin

A pioneering modernist painter whose work won prizes at major international expositions and is included in major museum collections, Hugh Henry Breckenridge (1870-1937) remains largely undiscovered among the wider collecting public. Paul Gratz of Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio, New Hope, Pennsylvania, considers Breckenridge "probably the biggest sleeper" -- at least for the time being -- among his peers, principally because it has been decades since a major exhibition has focused exclusively on his work.1

Born in Leesburg, Virginia, Breckenridge is closely associated with Philadelphia, where he became an influential member of that city's artistic community over the many years he lived and taught there. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1887 to 1892, and subsequently in Paris, after winning an Academy scholarship that funded travel and further instruction. The artist's European sojourn sparked a profound interest in color that endured throughout his lifetime, greatly affecting his work and influencing his peers and students over the course of his distinguished teaching career.

Breckenridge's early work included the commissioned portraits with which he supported himself, as well as landscapes and still lifes in the prevailing impressionist style (Fig. 1). He also painted major oils depicting the Philadelphia cityscape, including one of mummers marching in the annual New Year's Day parade, which sold earlier this year for just under $50,000 (Fig. 2).

After a second trip to Europe in 1909, Breckenridge began painting in an increasingly progressive style, departing from representational color and clearly recognizable form (Figs. 3, 4). He worked closely with Arthur B. Carles (1880-1952) in the years between 1910 and 1920, and as Carlisle, Massachusetts, dealer Mark Brock notes, "The two sometimes painted works side by side. They went in similar directions and created similar works." Among Breckenridge's output from these years is a study for a larger work that Brock recently placed in a private collection (Fig. 5). "I think it represents a pivotal point in Breckenridge's career when he is moving from broken brushstroke works in the impressionist vein, to a separation of form and color, eventually leading to his abstract works."

Breckenridge's bold palette and expressionistic use of color inspired scores of artists who worked with him at the summer art schools he established in Darby, Pennsylvania, and Fort Washington, New York; and (perhaps most notably) at the Breckenridge School of Art he opened in 1920 in East Gloucester on Massachusetts' Cape Ann peninsula, which at the time was emerging as one of America's major art colonies. There, Breckenridge took advantage of convenient harbor access to pursue the boat-related themes of which he was apparently quite fond; transforming hulls, sails, and water into freely formed planes of vivid color (Figs. 6, 7).

"Breckenridge delved into modernism long before many other artists," notes Paul Gratz. "He was way ahead of his time, yet his works are totally undervalued relative to his importance." Perhaps because American modernism has traditionally been more closely associated with New York, works by the group of artist associated with legendary dealer Alfred Stieglitz (Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Arthur Dove, for instance) bring considerably higher prices than do those by Philadelphia modernists like Breckenridge. "Given his contribution, I think his works are probably underpriced by a factor of ten when compared to the Stieglitz group," observes Gratz.

Until a major scholarly book or exhibition on Breckenridge's work arrives on the scene, Brock suggests that potential collectors look to form and color when evaluating a Breckenridge purchase. "It's all about visual impact when you buy these works," he says.

1. The last single-artist exhibition and accompanying catalogue on Breckenridge was in 1966 at Valley House Galleries, Dallas, Texas.

Article appeared in the Antiques and Fine Art 7th Anniversary issue,
Hugh Henry Breckenridge was long associated with Philadelphia as a modernist painter and teacher. From 1887 to 1892 he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he then taught for more than forty years.

In 1892 he was awarded a scholarship enabling him to study in Paris at the Academie Julian with William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) and to travel through Europe, going with the Pennsylvania impressionist Walter E. Schofield (1869-1944). His subsequent landscapes, portraits, and figure paintings reveal the influence of impressionism and an overwhelming fascination with color. His first solo exhibition in 1904 included both paintings and pastels. Breckenridge also produced many commissioned portraits, which provided him with a source of income; these exhibit the dazzling brushwork typical of society portraiture of the period.

A second trip to Europe with Schofield in 1909 made Breckenridge aware of more avant-garde trends. During the 1910s he worked alternately in a vigorous neoimpressionist technique, which he referred to as "tapestry painting,' and in a somewhat academic style enriched by an expressionist palette. These paintings gained for him national recognition as a foremost modernist whose art was easily accessible to the public. In 1922 Breckenridge began exhibiting abstract paintings, some of which recall the Improvisations of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). These abstractions of irregularly shaped, colored planes most commonly suggest the nature or the velocity of modern life. Above all they demonstrate his fascination with the theoretical basis of color.

Breckenridge began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1894. During the summer of 1900 he and Thomas Anshutz (18S1-1912) established the Darby School of Painting in Darby, Pennsylvania; Breckenridge later established his own school in East Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1919 he became director of fine arts at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore. In his last years Breckenridge sometimes returned to impressionism, painting landscapes of Gloucester and still life paintings.

Associate, National Academy of Design, New York City, 1913
New York Watercolor Club
Philadelphia Watercolor Club
Connecticut Academy of Fine Art
Society of Washington Artists
Southern States Art League
North Shore Artists
Association, Gloucester, Mass.
American Federation of Arts

Public Collections:
Los Angeles County Museum
San Francisco Museum of Art
Delgado Museum of Art, New Orleans
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art

Atlanta Expo, 1895 (medal)
Paris Expo, 1900 (prize)
Pan American Expo, Buffalo, 1901 (medal)
Society of Washington Etchers, 1903 (prize)
Philadelphia Art Club, 1907 (Medal)
Washington Watercolor Club, 1908 (prize)
Buenos Aires Expo, 1910 (medal)
Pan Pacific Expo, San Francisco, 1915 (gold)

Biography courtesy of Roughton Galleries,
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