Hugh Breckenridge (1870 - 1937)
Study for "Decoration in Blue", c. 1927
Pastel on paper
10 ¼ x 5 ¾ inches (sight)
in pencil at lower right: Breckenridge
Debra Force Fine Art, Inc., New York, New York
An innovative painter and influential art teacher, Hugh Henry Breckenridge was an established member of the Philadelphia art scene at the turn of the 20th century. Breckenridge worked in a variety of styles, creating works ranging from conventional academic portraits to abstract compositions. Born in Leesburg, Virginia, Breckenridge was the son of a cabinet-maker who only reluctantly acceded to his son's driving passion for art-making. In 1887, at the age of seventeen, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a Philadelphia institution with which he would have a lifelong relationship. Partnering with fellow student William Edmondson (1870–1951), Breckenridge supported his studies by painting portraits and retouching photographs. In 1892, an Academy scholarship funded a year's stay in Paris, where he worked under figure painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) and others.
Breckenridge returned home to take up a teaching post at a ladies' school in Spring Hill, Pennsylvania; a year later he accepted a position as instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy. Breckenridge was a gifted and influential teacher credited with the rise of a Pennsylvania school of landscape painting beginning around 1900. Several of its major figures studied with him at the Pennsylvania Academy or at the Darby Summer School of Painting, which Breckenridge co-founded in 1900 with fellow Academy teacher Thomas Anschutz (1851–1912); two years after it closed in 1918, he began the seasonal Breckenridge School of Art in the popular painting destination of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
The summer art school on Gloucester's Rocky Neck was active from 1920 until his death in 1937. The school was located in what is now The Studio Restaurant, overlooking Smith's Cove. Among his students were Allan Freelon, Sidney Raynes and Harriet Randall Lumis. Breckenridge's classes were large and primarily worked outside, moving inside only when the weather was bad and for painting critiques.
Breckenridge was enamored with Cape Ann and in a 1926 interview proclaimed that the area had "everything the artist wants—everything except the mountains."
Breckenridge was equally successful as an exhibitor, drawing positive critical notice and prizes in numerous venues. He is best known for landscapes, especially garden scenes, painted in a patterned mosaic of individual strokes of bright color; many were inspired by the bountiful garden at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Fort Washington. Following a second visit to Europe, in 1909, Breckenridge absorbed aspects of more recent artistic trends. Like his compatriot and contemporary Maurice Prendergast, he applied paint in distinct areas or spots of color in a manner recalling woven tapestry, melding the expressive color and texture of post-impressionism with a decorative sensibility in ways that made his personal brand of modernism palatable to American viewers. After about 1922, he began to create works that were non-objective or in which identifiable forms are suspended in abstract arrangements of colored planes and shapes. For the remainder of his career, the artist alternated easily between these modes, making his undated paintings difficult to assign to a specific period.
Esteemed both by progressive colleagues and by Philadelphia's relatively conservative public and institutions, Breckenridge received several one-man exhibitions, including shows at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1904 and in 1934.