On View: An Artistic Journey with Edward Loper
May 17, 2018
On museum walls, artists are often represented by a single work of art. Curators seek out the ideal painting or sculpture to characterize the artist—a mature work, but not a really late one, in the style most frequently associated with that artist. Occasionally, we have the opportunity to explore the arc of an artist’s career by acquiring and displaying multiple works. Three paintings currently on view at the Museum demonstrate the stylistic evolution of Wilmington painter Edward Loper Sr. The canvasses date from 1937 through the 1970s and range from realistic rendering to prismatic abstraction, highlighting the development of Loper’s unique idiom.
Loper launched his artistic career working for the WPA’s Index of American Design, drawing historically important objects—antique chairs, toys, and decorative metal work, for example—alongside other Delaware artists. Under the direction of David Reyam, the artists drew precise and detailed likenesses in pencil and watercolor. The goal was documentation: artists were to record the objects as precisely as possible. More than anything, the drawings needed to resemble the items they pictured.
Loper’s earliest paintings share this documentary impulse, presenting the artist’s hometown in clearly recognizable terms. After a Storm from 1937 shows the downtown skyline with the Hotel du Pont and the Hotel Darling clearly visible. Loper entered the painting into the annual exhibition of the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts—the predecessor to the Museum. It was accepted, and Loper attended the opening with his friend Walter Pyle. Loper recalled that some attendees were surprised to see a Black man there, and some snubbed him. After a Shower won an award and was purchased by the Society, becoming the first work by an African American artist to enter the permanent collection.
In the late 1930s, Loper moved to the easel painting division of the WPA, with local painters like Walter Pyle and Bayard Berndt. Loper remained there for a few years, improving his skills as a painter, before taking a job at the Allied Kid leather tannery in 1941. Loper expanded his knowledge by regularly visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and his work was influenced by the art he viewed there—from old masters to the paintings of Van Gogh and Cézanne. Loper’s colors became brighter and his compositions were inflected by Cubism. Pigeon Coops, with its jumble of angular forms, shows the painter’s increasing interest in form and color for their own sake, as he pushed away from realistic rendering.
While working at the tannery, Loper continued to paint and to exhibit his work. He showed at the annual juried shows of the Pennsylvania Academy and the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts and in groundbreaking exhibitions of African American art in Chicago, Albany, and Washington, DC. Leading Philadelphia art dealer Robert Carlen represented Loper, helping to sell the artist’s paintings to regional collectors. In 1947, he was able to leave his factory job to become a full-time artist and teacher, and between 1950 and 1965, Loper taught in the studio program of the Delaware Art Museum.
In 1963 Loper enrolled in classes at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Influenced by his study with Violette de Mazia there, he developed a signature style featuring intense color, strong black outlines, and compositions that appear fractured or shattered like shards of glass. With its dramatic palette and prismatic layout, Precipice, a painting of the landscape in Gaspé, Quebec, reflects these developments. This canvas also features an active and heavily textured surface—an effect the artist achieved by adding elements, including sand, to his paint. Precipice was the product of many years’ work, stretching from 1972 to 1984, and is representative of the artist’s mature style, which has become well known in Wilmington. Loper went on to teach generations of local artists.
It is exciting to have these three works by Loper—half of the Loper paintings in the Museum’s collection—sharing a wall to represent the stylistic evolution of this modern American artist. Throughout the spring and summer of 2018, Loper’s paintings are part of a display of modern art by African American artists drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection. And in 2019 the Delaware Art Museum will launch its Distinguished Artists Series with a joint exhibition of work by Edward Loper Sr. and Edward Loper Jr.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Chief Curator and Curator of American Art