One of the rewards of watching Antiques Roadshow on public television is seeing something familiar, something you know is from the Delaware Valley.
One night, a women from the Midwest brought a large framed painting that I recognized immediately – it had to be by Fern Coppedge. The colors the artist saw in the winter landscape were unmistakable. It was the snow-covered “January Landscape.”
The owner’s grandfather, a Philadelphia surgeon, had been given the painting in the 1930s in lieu of payment for medical services. It was handed down from generation to generation and the woman was now the owner. She didn’t know much about the painting – it was somewhere around Philadelphia, she thought. I thought it looked a lot like Point Pleasant.
When Alisdair Nichol of Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia told her the painting was worth up to $180,000, the owner was flabbergasted. She no idea, of course that the painting was so valuable, a great gift from her grandfather as it turned out. A photo of the surprised painting owner is printed in the new book “Fern Isabel Coppedge: One Woman’s Struggle for Equality in the Art World.”
Here in Bucks County, we know Fern Coppedge’s paintings well. The recognizable style has been displayed at the Michener Art Museum, in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in private galleries. And we know her house in Lumberville looking down on the Delaware River, where she eventually settled.
Fern Kuns was born in Illinois, grew up in Kansas, near McPherson College, where she earned a degree. She married Robert Coppedge, a science instructor at the University of Kansas, in 1904.
The couple moved to Topeka, where Fern enrolled in an art class at the Manual Training School, an annex to the local high school. The teacher was Iris Andrews, who had been trained by American Impressionist William Merritt Chase. Through Andrews’ influence, Fern enrolled in summer art courses at the Chicago Art Institute and the at the Art Students League in New York. Since her husband was a teacher, she and Robert were able to travel together – he painted too in a summer at Woodstock, N.Y.
All the while, Fern was thriving in Topeka, exhibiting with her sisters in many art events.
In 1917, already focusing on color as she would in the future, Fern told a Topeka newspaper, “There is a peculiar pinkish haze in Kansas that produces the best atmospheric conditions for painting.”
Meanwhile, Robert was looking for a teaching position in Philadelphia, so Fern could attend the Pennsylvania Academy and learn from Daniel Garber. “Robert’s salary,” the book says, “would give them a sense of security.” They were able to buy eventually, houses in Philadelphia, Lumberville and New Hope.