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Happy to Be Here: A tribute to Fern Coppedge

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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.

In the early 20th century, traditional art was undergoing transformation, with Impressionists seceding from the major organizations. Robert Henri created “The Eight,” and William Merritt established “The Ten,” both male groups. In 1917, women artists, seeing a need for self-promotion in order to form a client base, formed “The Philadelphia Ten,” a group that soon grew to 30. Patrons were mostly well-to-do women, who were encouraged to trust their own judgment and not depend on their husbands for selection of art.
Fern was an original, who departed even from the style of her revolutionary contemporaries. Today, the work of painter Joseph Barrett at the Silverman Gallery in Buckingham is most closely reminiscent of Coppedge’s landscape style.
Paul Gratz of the Gratz Gallery outside Doylestown was among the first to promote the Philadelphia Ten in his gallery. He had a show highlighting the women and promoted the book “The Philadelphia Ten,” by Patricia Tanis Sydney and Page Talbott, published in 1998.
The self-published new book, Gratz says, is a good compilation of the life and works of Fern Coppedge. Publishing it was a massive undertaking for authors Les and Sue Fox.
Michele Pavone Stricker, deputy state librarian for the State of New Jersey, is author of an essay “Fern Coppedge: A Forgotten Woman.” She wrote the foreword for the Foxes’ book.
“... The Foxes wanted to know everything about the artist from the day she was born to the day she died. ... Amazingly, the Foxes tracked down descendants of the artist who were happy to work with them for two years to help create this enlightening book. They also tapped into the resources of museums, art organizations, libraries and historical societies, including the Smithsonian Institution, who joyfully cooperated with them on this exciting and personal endeavor.”
The writer of the forword had an intimate connection with the Bucks County Impressionists. Pavone’s father, Joseph Edward Pavone, the owner of the Radcliffe Gallery in Bristol, “first discovered a cache of their paintings in basements, hallways and offices of the Lower Bucks County School District.” He became the school district’s superintendent of art, who restored and stabilized the paintings before they were hung in local schools. The paintings, including some by Fern Coppedge, eventually became part of the collection of the Bucks County Intermediate Unit, which serves the entire county.
The book “Fern Isabel Coppedge” is jam packed with images and stories, interactions with other artists, and extensive catalogs of her work.
It’s colorful, just like Fern’s work.
The book is available from Highland Publishing Company.


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