Art Market

Pioneering Dealer Edith Halpert Championed American Artists before It Was Fashionable

Karen Chernick
Oct 21, 2019 9:00PM

Edith Halpert in 1955 with Georgia O'Keeffe's In the Patio IX, one of the prizes of her personal collection. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

On the ground floor of a brownstone in New York’s Greenwich Village, almost a century ago, a gutsy immigrant did the unthinkable: She opened a gallery promoting contemporary art made in the United States. The city was far from the art capital that it is today and barely offered any places to see work by its many working artists. There was just one major museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and its American department was full of colonial furniture, not paintings; the few galleries that dared show local artworks sprinkled them into their heavily European programs. The general attitude was that art was best left to Paris, and nothing interesting was coming from American-held paintbrushes and chisels. New York had plenty of artists, but they were short on champions.

Enter Edith Halpert—a 26-year-old woman with a mishmash of a resume that included art studies and jobs at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s department stores—who loved the unpopular art of her adopted home, the United States of America. The scrappy entrepreneur had the revolutionary idea that American art ought to be treated in a way befitting the values and politics of the country. It should support a diverse group of artists working in all styles, and be marketed to everyone.

Jacob Lawrence, This Is Harlem, 1943. Photo by Cathy Carver. Artwork © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.


“Halpert was very proud to be an American, as a Russian-Jewish immigrant, and she really wanted to promote the artists and the talents that were around her,” said Rebecca Shaykin, a Jewish Museum curator who organized a recently opened exhibition devoted to Halpert’s trailblazing career. “She was very passionate about making sure that American artists could earn a living, and that they got the love and respect they deserved.”

The gallery Halpert opened in 1926 was the first of its kind—devoted entirely to contemporary American artists, and in the bohemian neighborhood of Greenwich Village, where many of the artists on her roster lived. Halpert’s Downtown Gallery was aptly named because, at the time, New York’s commercial art galleries were all located much further uptown. The building she bought to house it at 113 West 13th Street shared the block with 21 speakeasies and was in an area where people typically went looking for booze, not art.

The inaugural exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in November 1926, featuring Marguerite Zorach's tapestry Memories of a Summer in the White Mountains and Elie Nadelman's sculpture Seated Woman. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

But in that unpretentious district, she could model a more down-to-earth American dream, one where even schoolteachers could buy quality contemporary art as easily as they shopped for other merchandise. Halpert purposefully kept her rooms looking homey instead of imitating the elite marbled interiors of the uptown galleries, using fireplaces and bookshelves to help customers imagine the artworks in their own apartments.

She also repurposed sales strategies of department stores for her gallery, pioneering the practice of end-of-season sales (she called them “$100 Exhibitions”) and an interest-free installment plan for buying art. “We found that 13 million spending units—families and individuals in the United States today—are purchasing merchandise of all types on the installment plan,” Halpert later told an interviewer while explaining her sales approach. “We feel that we’re just as necessary as a deep freezer. Although, we feel we give warmth.”

O. Louis Guglielmi, Subway Exit, 1946. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

Ben Shahn, Hunger, 1946. Artwork © Estate of Ben Shahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

This warmth was emitted by the artworks Halpert showed, which constituted an eclectic blend reflecting a pluralistic America. Regulars at the Downtown Gallery included the modernist Stuart Davis, the painter and weaver Marguerite Zorach, and the social realist Ben Shahn, among others. Halpert showed minorities, immigrants, and women, curating a space where anyone who wandered in could hopefully see themselves represented on the walls.

In the 1940s, for example, when segregation was the norm and African American art was absent from leading art institutions, Halpert met with Alain Locke, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke published his seminal book on African American art history, The Negro in Art, in 1940. After he sent Halpert a copy, she realized it had been a blind spot and wanted to correct the error. She wrote Locke immediately, asking for his help planning the city’s first major commercial show of black artists.

Stuart Davis, New York - Paris No. 1, 1931. Artwork © Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

Together, they visited artists in Harlem, assembling around 80 works by more than 50 African American artists. The group show “American Negro Art” (1941) also led to the establishment of a Negro Art Fund to place important works by black artists in major American museums. The fund was headed by a committee Halpert formed that included Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Van Vechten, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

Halpert’s preparation for this show introduced her to the work of a young Jacob Lawrence, who had just finished his 60-piece “Migration Series” (1940–41). Halpert exhibited the entire series in a solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery the month before “American Negro Art,” then represented Lawrence for over a decade. The gallerist negotiated the sale of the “Migration Series” to two major institutions—the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Museum of Modern Art—ensuring its legacy. “Had it been another dealer, maybe they would have been sold individually and just lost completely,” Lawrence later said of Halpert’s efforts to keep the series as intact as possible. “I always owe Edith Halpert,” he added. “I think she is one of the great American dealers.”

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Circus Girl Resting, ca. 1925. Artwork © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

The following year, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s citizenship status was changed from resident alien to enemy alien, and he was put under house arrest with his assets frozen. Halpert defiantly mounted a retrospective for Kuniyoshi, a longtime Downtown Gallery artist. “It is a story of a boy from a foreign land exposed to a new environment, to a new way of life,” Halpert wrote of him in the exhibition press release. “It is the story of the development of a great talent enriched by the opportunities in American life and in turn enriching that life. It is the story of art and life in a democracy.”

The democratic American story of art and life also applied to Halpert herself. Over the course of a career spanning more than 40 years, she demonstrated that women could compete in the art world. She opened her gallery well over a decade before other famous female gallerists who followed her, such as Betty Parsons and Peggy Guggenheim. “She was entirely self-made,” noted Lindsay Pollock, author of The Girl with the Gallery (2006)—the first biography of Halpert—“and a pioneer who helped pave the way for generations of women dealers, curators, and art world figures.”

Edith Halpert at the Downtown Gallery, wearing the 13 watch brooch and ring designed for her by Charles Sheeler, in a photograph for Life magazine in 1952. She is joined by some of the new American artists she was promoting that year: Charles Oscar, Robert Knipschild, Jonah Kinigstein, Wallace Reiss, Carroll Cloar, and Herbert Katzman. Photo © Estate of Louis Faurer. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

Halpert kept working until her death in 1970, after which the gallery quickly shuttered because she hadn’t designated a business heir and didn’t have any descendants. A few years later, her personal art collection—around 400 works by American modernists she’d either been gifted or bought herself over the years—was sold at auction and dispersed. Some of those works have been reunited at the Jewish Museum as part of “Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art.”

Halpert’s legacy is a bit like a firework colored red, white, and blue, bursting in all directions. There are the artists she supported when American art was still considered second-rate; the space she carved out for women in the New York art scene; a diverse redefinition of American art; and her advocacy for placing artworks in museums—so that now, almost a century later, there are countless places in New York to see American contemporary art.

Peter Blume, South of Scranton, 1931. Artwork © The Educational Alliance, Inc. / Estate of Peter Blume / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image provided by the Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, New York. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, for one, was a loyal Halpert client; when she gifted her 2,000-piece modern art collection to the MoMA, 550 of the artworks in the gift had been bought through Halpert or after following advice from her. Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, was a Halpert client, as was Louis E. Stern, a lawyer with a major art collection later donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Halpert was pleased with these accomplishments, but she was equally (if not more) proud that in 1944, 45 percent of the Downtown Gallery’s sales were to first-time art buyers. This was her beloved American democracy, in art-buying action.

“She did not follow in the footsteps of others; she did not take the easy way of promoting and selling European art where the path was clear and well-trodden,” said painter William Zorach, one of Halpert’s Downtown Gallery artists. “She set out to promote American art because she believed in it and realized that if this country was ever to have an American art, it had to come out of American artists. American art owes her a great debt.”

Karen Chernick