We’ve all come out as winners with the recent rediscovery of regional Impressionist and modernist "schools" of artists. Since the turn of the new millennium, our area has hosted an impressive string of exhibitions that have introduced us to the often-spectacular artwork and equally fascinating histories of some of its significant artist colonies and groups. Among these shows are the notable "The Fascination of Sun and Shore" and "Up the River," both at the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and, at the James A. Michener Art Museum, "The Philadelphia Ten" and "Earth, River and Light" (accompanied by a seminal catalog on Pennsylvania Impressionism). Taken together, both catalogs and shows offered enticing introductions to our early 20th-century artist communities in New Hope, Philadelphia, greater Bucks County, and along the New Jersey shore.

These days, Impressionism remains one of the most popular painting styles among both collectors and the general public. The vibrant colors, diverse styles, and luminous beauty now associated with Impressionism are so familiar to us that it’s easy to forget that Impressionism had a controversial, often acrimonious, and very passionate birth in Paris. Independent-thinking artists rebelled against the mannerist art traditions and constrained styles of the art academies of the 19th century. They wanted to breathe some life into their art, and so they brought their easels out of doors, attempting to capture with pure paint and short strokes the immediacy of the world around them. The art world was horrified. Still, by the late 1870s and early 1880s, adventurous American artists arrived in France every week to learn about and view this new art form, often going on to study in near-by artist colonies like the one near Monet’s home in Giverny.

By the turn of the last century, many of these adventurers had returned to the States. Locations like New Hope and the Jersey shore, were attractive to these artists both for their abundant natural beauty — essential for artists committed to painting en plein air — as well as for their proximity to New York City and, perhaps more importantly, to Philadelphia.

Although New York City was already the mecca for art and artists that it remains today, Philadelphia at that time was the unquestioned center of American art education, with the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) at the center of activity. By the early 1890s, the city had become a magnet for American Impressionists looking for teaching positions. Thanks in no small part to Harrison Morris, a PAFA administrator with progressive taste, avant-garde artists, trained in the French Impressionist style, were soon teaching at PAFA. Among these teachers were the well-known Boston artists Robert Vonnoh, Joseph de Camp, and Julian Alden Weir.

Daniel Garber, Edward Redfield, and Walter Lathrop, all key founding members of the New Hope Circle of artists, all studied at PAFA during this time. Lathrop, the first of the group to settle in the New Hope area, was instrumental in encouraging other artists to follow suit.

New Hope, today, maintains much of the charm and natural beauty that first attracted these artists to the area. And, as the reputation of the New Hope Circle and Pennsylvania Impressionists has re-emerged in recent years, it has begun to attract new galleries that specialize in the works of these artists, both in town and across the river in Lambertville.

One of the in-town spaces, the Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio on Bridge Street, recently celebrated its third anniversary with a show entitled "Pennsylvania Painters and the New Hope Circle." Paul Gratz, co-owner with his wife, Harriet Gratz, and curator of the gallery, has a 25-year history of buying and selling Pennsylvania and Bucks County art. For Gratz, who is also a well-respected art conservator and professional gilder, the time was right for opening a gallery in town.

"We’ve been wanting to bring the New Hope artists back to New Hope," he says. "That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re so excited about supporting the Michener Museum’s new satellite location next door. I feel as if we’re part of a renaissance here in New Hope. The town will always have its Key West flavor, but things are also looking up for the artistic and historical aspects of the town."

The Gratz Gallery’s Bridge Street location bodes well. Standing between the New Hope-Ivyland Railroad and the New Hope Canal, the light-filled gallery also borders on the old Union Paper Bag site where the Michener Museum opened its New Hope satellite in late November. At the same time, the Gratz Gallery featured an impressive inventory of 18th, 19th, and early 20th century oil paintings tastefully displayed and well lit. The show featured a wealth of paintings by artists from the New Hope Circle, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Philadelphia Ten, a loosely defined group of gifted and enterprising women artists of the Philadelphia area who successfully exhibited together for almost 30 years.

The gallery included a few more modernist works in its smaller upstairs gallery, along with works by area artists Joseph Crilley and Jan Lipes who are among the few contemporary artists the gallery represents. The quality of works showcased in "Pennsylvania Painters and the New Hope Circle" was impressive — clearly museum quality — as was the pricing. Tiny red "SOLD" dots on most of the works’ wall labels indicated that collectors from the area have already discovered Gratz Gallery.

Gratz has been a painting conservator and gilder for 25 years. His work over the years on prestigious public and private collections, including those of the New Jersey State Museum, Morven, Drumthwacket, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and even the New Jersey State House’s portrait collection, has helped him to continuously refine both his craft and his eye. He is currently working on Princeton University’s extensive portrait collection. "It’s amazing," he says, "they must have at least 500 portraits in their collection."

The establishment of the Gratz Gallery was family decision, and has become very much a family affair. Harriet Gratz left her position as the director of advertising for the Journal Register Company in order to support the gallery as chief advertising executive, business administrator, and bookkeeper. "She’s really organized, plus she’s the real extrovert in the family, the one with the real people skills," Gratz says. "I couldn’t do this without her." The couple’s eight-year-old daughter, Maggie, is rumored to share her mother’s people skills and organizational abilities. In addition to curating and running the gallery, Gratz continues to offer fine art conservation services and custom framing.

Born in Worcester, Montgomery County, Gratz and his four siblings (including a twin sister) were raised in Norristown and King of Prussia by their father, vice president of Pactra Chemical Paint Company, and mother, a nurse. Gratz was still in high school when he determined that he wanted to be a conservator. "I had a friend whose older brother did conservation. I’d hang out in his studio to watch him work every chance I had. It wasn’t too long before I realized that I’d found something that I really, really loved to do: preserving beautiful things for future generations," he says.

Soon he was apprenticing with his friend’s brother. This would be the first of several long-term apprenticeships which were to form the basis of Gratz’s hands-on education in both conservation and gilding. He spent years studying gilding techniques with William Michael Leech III. He took some classes at Temple University. A suggestion by one of his mentors — that he study in-painting and other specialized painting techniques with Joseph Amorotico — lead to studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Gratz, a passionate advocate for fine art conservation, says he is "continually taking classes in new painting approaches, or the latest in techniques for cleaning paintings."

"The first painting I ever bought was by Walter Baum," says Gratz. "I bought it at an auction at a firehouse. It was a painting of Main Street in Appleboxville, Pennsylvania, where the street brought you right into the painting." To this day Baum’s lyrical works hold a special place for Gratz in the pantheon of regional painters.

Soon Gratz was searching out more paintings by artists affiliated with PAFA. In the early years his skill as a conservator, and the sure, artistic eye he had developed, occasionally helped him find local treasures hidden under layers of grime. As his knowledge about the painters grew, so did his desire to purchase better and better works.

"After a while I needed to sell some pieces to buy a better painting," says Gratz. And from this experience his third career — as art collector and art dealer — was born. Many of the works that he displays, and offers for sale, come from his private collection.

Gratz is elated about the renewed interest in the New Hope Circle, PAFA, and other regional artists. "It’s great, after all this time, to see how well received these artists are," he says. "When I started collecting, I couldn’t find anything about the artists. It’s good to see these guys get their day." On Saturday, January 10, the gallery opens a month-long show of new work by Jan Lipes.

Meanwhile, the brand-new Michener Museum, New Hope, is celebrating with an inaugural exhibition "Coming Home: Impressionism and Modernism in the New Hope Arts Community," on view through Wednesday, April 21. The show features major works by Edward Redfield, William Lathrop, Daniel Garber, Walter Schofield, George Sotter, Robert Spencer, Fern Coppedge, Charles Rosen, Harry Leith-Ross, C.F. Ramsey, Charles Evans, R.A.D. Miller, Lloyd Ney, and others.

So spend some time in historic New Hope. Walk where these artists walked, enjoy the same views, then stop by Gratz Gallery and the new Michener Art Museum to enjoy the warming talent of these wonderful American artists, talents that blossomed in our own backyard.

Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio, 30 West Bridge Street, New Hope, 215-862-4300. Open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. Www.gratzgallery.com

The James A. Michener Art Museum, New Hope, Union Square complex, Bridge Street, New Hope, 215-340-9800. www.michenerartmuseum.org. Winter hours (January 2 to March 29): Thursday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. New Hope admission $4.95; discounts for students, seniors, and children.

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