The term

self-taught

turns up frequently in art discourse to describe artists who aren't, or weren't, academically trained. Often these artists are either members of minority groups or socially marginalized in some way. When they are,

self-taught

tends to imply virtue: Despite humble origins and disadvantaged circumstances, they taught themselves to make art.

The truth is that many self-taught artists - perhaps even a majority - didn't teach themselves much of anything. They've simply given free rein to their instincts and inherent sense of design to make visual statements. Sometimes their art is strikingly original and emotionally resonant. Sometimes it isn't. Yet regardless of aesthetic merit, self-taught adheres like a badge of approbation.

Wilmington's Edward L. Loper Sr. never had any formal studio training, so he qualifies legitimately as self-taught. ("Senior" distinguishes him from his son, Edward L. Loper Jr., who is also an artist.) Loper took courses at the Barnes Foundation during the 1960s, and what he learned there profoundly influenced his art. Yet, the Barnes curriculum, which stresses aesthetic analysis, isn't analogous to art-school training.

Loper, born in Wilmington in 1916 – he turned 91 on April 7 - is a natural talent. One grasps that immediately in the opening section of his retrospective exhibition at the University of Delaware.

Whether, after graduating from high school, he taught himself to draw and paint by by visiting museums - the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for one - or whether his early works owe everything to intuition isn't clear. As the decades pass, though, significant shifts in his style clearly relate to innovations by such painters as Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso.

Loper has become an institution in the Wilmington region, as both painter and teacher. He's represented in several prestigious collections, including the Art Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and, in Washington, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Howard University Gallery of Art.

This exhibition of 40 works made between 1935 and last year celebrates the artist's gift to the university of a major work from 1975, My Father the Bishop, and a promised gift of other works to be determined. It's the first major Loper exhibition in the region since a 1996 retrospective at the Delaware Art Museum.

Loper's precocity pops out in the show's earliest works, four watercolor drawings executed for the Delaware division of the Works Progress Administration in the mid- to late 1930s. He worked as an illustrator for a project called the Index of American Design until 1939.

Four of his colored drawings from the 113 now housed at the National Gallery of Art reveal an accomplished draftsman who, in his watercolor technique, meticulously recreated various surface textures of folk objects, such as a toy bank and a Pennsylvania German side chair.

The show's earliest paintings date from 1937 and 1938, just before Loper joined the WPA's easel division, an assignment that allowed him to choose his own subjects. In After a Shower, a nighttime view of Wilmington from his kitchen window, and Wind and Ashes, which depicts Depression-era Wilmingtonians picking though an ash dump for lumps of unburned coal, Loper shows a practiced command of the social realism that dominated American art in the 1930s.

Wind and Ashes in particular is a splendid genre tableau that depicts stooped bodies buffeted by tempest-tossed gusts of steam from newly dumped ashes under a dark, swirling, malevolent sky. Through the 1940s, Loper followed these scenes with other city views such as Under the Highline and Cityscape, Wilmington, both of which contain expressionist touches of turbulence in sky and trees reminiscent of van Gogh.

At the end of the 1940s, Loper was a fully developed painter, but not necessarily a distinctive one. Then, apparently, he discovered Picasso and cubism, because in the 1950 painting Nova Scotia, his style underwent a dramatic transformation, from perspectival realism to a fractured, kaleidoscopic derivative of cubism.

Loper wasn't the only American painter to take this path; for instance, Charles Demuth and Lyonel Feininger also developed their own cubist-inflected language. Yet Loper's cubist style is more prismatic than theirs, but also also less transparent. If one can speak of "dark light" as a pictorial quality, then Loper mastered it.

With a few exceptions - notably Old Farm of 1954 - Loper's fracturing is persistently structural rather than tonal. Although he came to rely on strategic deployments of bright colors, especially red and orange, his color often feels heavy and opaque. Still Life with African Sculpture of 1965 illustrates this quality, even though otherwise it's a masterfully composed image with the chromatic intensity of stained glass.

(This still life is the only painting in the show with an African or African American theme. Loper, who is black, says he has been criticized for not addressing such subjects - his show is mostly landscapes and cityscapes, with a few still lifes, a nude, and one portrait. "To me, black art is the person who does the painting - if he's black, it's black art," he observed.)

Loper is further quoted by doctoral candidate Anna O. Marley in the exhibition catalog (she and Loper selected the exhibition) as recalling that he discovered color, and Cezanne, while studying at the Barnes Foundation. Paintings of the 1970s and '80s, such as View from Westover Hills, are deeply indebted to Cezanne's use of color to define space. However, where Cezanne dissolved form with a light touch, Loper paints solidly interlocking structures that, even when intensely colored, communicate mass rather than light.

Nevertheless, his Cezannesque style, evident in the recent painting White House on Shipley Road, brings him back nearly to his starting point of 70 years ago. This painting is more clarified than some of his earlier, dense near-abstractions. Where they feel cinched-in by powerful internal gravity, White House breathes more effortlessly. Its color, too, is more evanescent; it conveys the artist's continued delight in confronting a blank canvas.

Ironically, Loper's major stylistic shifts produced progressively retrograde art. As a realist in the 1930s, he was painting in the mainstream. By the time he got to cubism, most other artists had moved on from it. With his later Cezanne phase, he traveled even further into the past, until he reached the big bang of modernism. White House on Shipley Road, painted in 2006, is a picture that would have been considered avant-garde a century earlier.

Judging by the exhibition's most recent paintings, particularly the majestic still life Paint Brushes and Fruit of 2005, Loper in old age has been able to maintain consistent control over his materials and an admirable consistency of vision. For his remarkable career, self-taught truly resonates as a badge of honor.

Art | Guided by Masters

"The Art of Edward L. Loper Sr.: On the Path of the Masters" continues in Mechanical Hall, University of Delaware, Newark, through July 20. The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays - but to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through May 23 - and from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Free admission. Information: 302-831-8037 or www.udel.edu/museums.

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Contact art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.