Often besotted, often charismatic painter Arthur B. Carles was not an easy personality. He tossed the famed plaster casts of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts down an elevator shaft in a rage, railed against Philadelphia’s conservative cultural elites, sank deep into alcoholism, and finally fell down his own studio stairs in 1941, ending his painting career 11 years before death at 70.
When he was on his game, however, Carles painted beautifully, said biographer Barbara Wolanin. His use of color was as well known among painters as his mercurial and erratic personality, and scholars, including Wolanin, increasingly see his late work as a major augury of abstraction expressionism.
Yet the Woodmere Art Museum, just blocks away from Carles’ old studio at Evergreen and Germantown Avenues in Chestnut Hill, did not acquire any of his works for many years.
That has begun to change, and now, thanks to the heirs of Philadelphia collectors Perry and June Ottenberg, both of whom died at 92 last year, the Woodmere has received a major gift — an extraordinary cache of 300 works on paper by Carles.
“It’s very exciting for me,” said William Valerio, Woodmere director and chief executive, who described the gift as transformational.
“Nobody has this – 300 works on paper,” Valerio said. “They’re from throughout his career and demonstrate the full breadth of his expression in the arts …. It really makes us a center of gravity for his work.”
The works consist of drawings, etchings, figure studies, and possibly some etchings by Carles’ father. Valerio said some drawings clearly relate to specific paintings; others show Carles “trying to figure out how to work with different” angles and views; and some are dashed off “like a passing thought.”
Valerio called the acquisition incredibly important for Woodmere.
Elise Ottenberg said she and her three siblings decided to sell some Carles works and to give the drawings to Woodmere.
Freeman’s auction house sold 14 Carles paintings from the Ottenberg collection on Sunday – with all going above low estimates, a Freeman’s spokeswoman said. Collectively, the 14 paintings fetched $310,625, including auction fees. One participant described the bidding as aggressive.
“We have all grown up with my father telling us all the time how important this was,” Elise Ottenberg said of the 300 Carles works on paper. “We knew Woodmere cared about them and wanted them and would consider them a wonderful asset.”
That is an understatement. The Woodmere, which is devoted to artists from Philadelphia and the region, was bereft of Carles until Valerio arrived there in 2010.
The museum had, he said, works by Carles’ students and admirers, like Quita Brodhead, and artists important in bringing modernism to Philadelphia, like surrealist Leon Kelly.
“But there was a gap,” Valerio said: no Carles, the artist Valerio believes is central to the region’s modernist traditions and whom scholar Wolanin believes showed the way to abstract expressionism – two decades before that approach burst across canvases, particularly in New York.
Valerio began, with his small acquisitions budget, to bring Carles into the Woodmere fold. He bought some drawings and acquired two significant paintings, Autumn Bouquet from 1939, and Woman with Red Hair from 1922.
Painter Bill Scott, who was on the Woodmere board for a time, also gave some drawings and a very early painting, Moonlight (1908).
Scott, whose own abstract works reflect the same love of color found in the paintings of his predecessor, said Carles meticulously worked out his compositions (a point now made plain by the Carles drawings).
“Carles was a self-destructive, complex personality,” Scott said. “But his paintings seem completely realized. They appear effortless, but it takes a lot to make it look so easy.”
Wolanin said many factors, including his erratic personality and alcoholism, worked against Carles’ achieving broad art world recognition, although his reputation has spread slowly in the last 30 years.
For one thing, she noted, Carles refused to live in New York, much preferring his native Philadelphia, an area on the art landscape likened for many years to the Bermuda Triangle. Carles also eschewed working with a gallery and experimented relentlessly after his encounters with other painters in France in the early 20th century, most notably Matisse and Cézanne.
“He was an amazing colorist,” said Wolanin. “He called himself an experimentalist. That’s one of the difficult things about him.”
Valerio sees Carles as a critical figure in Philadelphia’s modernist art history. Carles’ great teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy was Cecilia Beaux.
Carles then went on to teach Leon Kelly at the academy. Kelly became a key figure in transmitting surrealism to the United States.
“We would not have Leon Kelly without Arthur Carles,” said Valerio. “The same could be said of Quita Brodhead. The same could be said of Jane Piper. Jane Piper was Bill Scott’s mentor. Carles is a key link in that chain.”
Piper, who died in 1991, once said Carles had a greater intensity than anyone she had ever met: “You paint a tree, a house, a table – he made it so you put everything in your life into it. He said, ‘If you’re a politician or a painter, put everything into it. It will come out more powerfully.’ It was a whole way of seeing life.”
Valerio said the Woodmere was already thinking about how to exhibit its new Carles trove.
“The works on paper span Carles’ entire career, from the time living in France to his late career when he was an abstract painter,” Valerio said. “The drawings are really what matter. It’s amazing the Ottenbergs were able to amass all that material.”