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Bernice Cross

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Bernice Cross
American Modern Painter
American, (8/22/1912–7/23/1996)
Bernice Francene Cross (1) was born in Iowa City, Iowa, on August 22, 1912. She studied in Wilmington, Delaware, at the Wilmington Academy of Art, where she was awarded a scholarship in 1931-32, and in Washington, D.C., first at the Corcoran School of Art in 1932-33 (2) and then with C. Law Watkins at the Phillips Memorial Gallery. (3) Beginning in 1934, she was supported by the Federal Art Project, the visual arts arm of the WPA (Works Progress Administration, later the Work Project Administration), and beginning in 1936 she offered painting and sketching classes for adults and sketching classes for children at her studio at 1517 H Street, N.W. (4) Cross exhibited at the first Washington, D.C., Annual Independent Exhibition in 1935 and took the first prize for oil painting. With WPA support, the U.S. Department’s Section of Fine Arts engaged her to paint mural paintings at the Children’s State Tubercular Sanatorium in Glendale, Maryland (1936), and at the Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. (1937). (5) Under her supervision, children painted a frieze of circus life for a WPA exhibition at the Phillips Gallery in 1936. (6)

Cross spent the majority of her adult life in the Washington, D.C. area, where in addition to working as a muralist, she painted genre and botanical canvases in a number of figurative styles. Reviewers found that her art demonstrated imagination and a sense of humor, and she was compared to primitive painters because of her childlike expression and whimsical content. (7) One reviewer wrote: “In her … paintings Bernice Cross developed a world of children and for children. This was the most natural start she could have made because she had worked with children and had the youthful outlook and imagination to share their flights of fancy.” (8) In 1939, Robert Coates, the art critic for The New Yorker, characterized her recent art as “Neo-Expressionist painting, less abstract than calligraphic, which has Klee as perhaps its principal inspiration with a host of other influences, including the Japanese, behind that.” But he went on to say, “…the result is a set of charmingly adroit little canvases, many of them only a step away from child art in their scrawly design and seeming formlessness, but full of sly whimsicality and sharp observation for all that.” (9) Cross stopped painting African American children as subjects after 1940, but her paintings continued to involve fantasy and humor. (10)

In addition to participating in group shows at the Phillips Gallery’s Studio House, the Little Gallery (beginning in 1934), (11) the Franz Bader Gallery, and the Whyte Gallery (beginning in 1940), (12) all in Washington, D.C., Bernice Cross had six one-person exhibitions at what is now the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., in 1938, 1944, 1948 (“Recent Paintings”), 1949 (“Recent Paintings”), and 1951 (“Retrospective”). Her last show at the Phillips was a joint exhibition in 1953 with her then-husband, James McLaughlin, who was also a curator at the Phillips. Cross also exhibited in New York City, including two one-person shows in 1939 and 1949. (13) Bernice Cross died in Bethesda, Maryland, on July 23, 1996.

(1) See The Eye of Duncan Phillips, A Collection in the Making, David W. Scott, ed. (New Haven/London, 1999), 629, and Who’s Who in American Art, 1940-41 (New York, 1941).

(2) In 1933 Cross was in the still life class at the Corcoran School of Art, where she received a certificate and $20. See “De Groot Captures Corcoran Art Prize,” The Washington Post (May 28, 1933), 2.

(3) The Phillips Memorial Gallery (now the Phillips Collection) ran an art school known as the Gallery School of Art which was tuition-free between 1929 and 1932, when it closed. In 1933 C. Law Watkins (1886-1945), who had run the Gallery School of Art and who was deputy director at the Phillips Collection, established the tuition-based Studio House at 1614 21st Street, which was next door to the gallery. The classes and exhibitions at Studio House were associated with but otherwise independent from the gallery. Studio House closed in 1938 (it later merged with The American University’s School of Art in 1942), and classes resumed at the gallery itself, where Bernice Cross taught in the 1940s and maintained a studio until 1962. See “Oral history interview with Adele S. Brown and William H. Calfee, 1995 Jan. 11,” http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/brown95.htm (retrieved July 15, 2009).

(4) “Art Prize Winners Start Studio Soon,” The Washington Post (October 3, 1936), X5.

(5) The Mother Goose Mural at the Children’s Hospital was controversial, and the then District Health Officer, George C. Ruhland, had called it grotesque and ordered that it be removed. Eventually a “jury” of six children spoke in favor of preserving the mural, an event that drew nation-wide attention. See “Battle Rages Over Mural, Health Officer Bans Mother Goose Art at Child Sanatorium” Los Angeles Times (November 19, 1937), 6; “Jury of Critics to Decide Fate of Hospital Art,” Chicago Daily Tribune (November 19, 1937), 10; “Defends Her Mural,” Chicago Daily Tribune (November 25, 1937), B2; “Mother Goose Mural is Saved by a Jury of Six School Tots,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (November 25, 1937), 34; and “Children’s Jury Saves Paintings,” Los Angeles Times (November 25, 1937), 16.

(6) Sibilla Skidelsky, “Majority of the Canvases Sincere as to Expression,” The Washington Post (June 21, 1936), TM5.

(6) Jane Watson Crane, “Bernice Cross Show Opens Today,” The Washington Post (June 12, 1939), L5.

(7) Not all critics saw these qualities in a positive light. One unnamed reviewer wrote: “The paintings of Bernice Cross…are impertinent, capricious, and generally marred by an unstable sense of humor. They vary from cartoons that reveal the influence of Chagall and of children’s art to more solidly constructed pictures….” However, the same reviewer also admitted that “the artist can concoct an imaginative scene with well seasoned humor and pictorial construction.” ARTnews vol. 37, no. 14 (December 31, 1938), 15f.

(8) Jane Watson Crane, “Bernice Cross Show Opens Today,” The Washington Post (June 12, 1939), L5.

(9) Robert M. Coates, “The Art Galleries,” The New Yorker (January 7, 1939), 42.

(10) Bernice Cross’s paintings of African-American children were exhibited as late as April 1940 at The Little Gallery, Washington, D.C., where a reviewer noted: “Pickaninnies are among her subjects, judging from her frequent utilization of them, sometimes humorously, again with pathos, as in her little painting, “All God’s Children Got Shoes.” Florence S. Berryman, “Work of Bernice Cross Has Symbolic Flavor,” Sunday Star (April 2, 1940), n.p.

(11) A[lice] G[raeme], “Recent Bernice Cross Paintings Exhibited at the Little Gallery,” The Washington Post (March 26, 1939), L6.

(12) Alice Graeme, “Bernice Cross’ Latest Work Seen at Whyte’s,” The Washington Post (March 10, 1940), E7.

(13) A[lice] G[raeme], “Bernice Cross In 1-Man Show At New York,” The Washington Post (January 8, 1939), TS6. The 1939 exhibition was at Contemporary Arts Gallery, and the 1949 exhibition was at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery.


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