Arts of Wharton Esherick


The unconventional artistic trajectory and prolific work of prominent Philadelphia-area artist and craftsman Wharton Esherick (1877–1970) have been claimed for and by multiple movements in the history of twentieth-century American art, from early-twentieth-century Arts and Crafts to postwar studio craft. Working across a wide variety of media, including printmaking, sculpture, furniture, and theatrical design, Esherick also attained fame for the studio he built over several decades in Paoli, Pennsylvania, which became a draw for other creative figures from Greater Philadelphia and farther afield. Directly shaped by him over the course of decades, the building and its site became an extension of his integrative approach to the arts.

A cubist woodblock print illustrated by Wharton Esherick as a gift to a friend.
After leaving the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Esherick worked as a commercial artist, and the graphic arts—drawing, printmaking, and book illustration—continued to play a prominent role in his artistic practice. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Born to a well-to-do West Philadelphia family, Esherick attended the Central Manual Training High School and trained in printmaking and commercial art at the Pennsylvania Museum School of the Industrial Arts (later University of the Arts). In 1908 he received a scholarship to study painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he worked under some of the leading Pennsylvania Impressionist painters of the day. However, apparently dissatisfied with academic constraints, he left the academy before completing his studies and began working as a commercial artist and book illustrator while attempting to sell paintings. In 1913, he moved with his new wife Leticia (“Letty,” 1892­–1975) to a small farm in Paoli that they called Sunekrest (pronounced “sunny crest”), drawn by an idealized notion of rural life that would allow him to develop as an artist. Although Esherick struggled to find an audience for his paintings, the wood frames he began carving for them drew praise, and from the early 1920s he increasingly worked as a sculptor in wood, as well as a printmaker and maker of functional objects. His prints and sculptural work in particular exhibited the smooth contours and semi-abstraction that characterized the growing modernist art movement in the United States.

A color photograph of Wharton Esherick's Paoli Studio.
Esherick began building his studio in 1926 on land in Paoli, Pennsylvania, bought with his wife, Letty. Preferring to work in relative solitude, he sited the studio at a remove from the farmhouse he shared with Letty and their children. (Library of Congress)

In 1926, he began building a barnlike studio on his land, somewhat removed from the farmhouse he shared with Letty and their children Mary (1917–96), Ruth (1923­–2015), and Peter (1926–2013). Esherick modeled his studio after the region’s historic barns, constructing thick stone walls with the help of a local stonemason and intentionally introducing curves to the architecture in a suggestion of timelessness. Esherick’s conscious evocation of vernacular barn architecture was influenced by Expressionist tradition and certainly by Greater Philadelphia’s rural Arts and Crafts art colonies (like nearby Rose Valley), with their attempts to integrate the visual, applied, and performing arts into a utopian vision of “honest” labor and social cohesion.

Esherick had an even more direct connection to Rose Valley through his involvement in the Hedgerow Theater, established in 1923 in the colony’s former mill building after the Rose Valley Association and its workshops had disbanded in 1910. He designed and built furniture, stage sets, and interior fittings for the theater and made prints to promote performances. He even displayed his sculpture works there, using the theater as a kind of informal gallery. Esherick maintained close connections to the performing and literary arts throughout his career. He developed friendships with many of the authors, playwrights, dramaturges, and educators who worked with the Hedgerow Theater; those he met in New York City or during his family’s summer travels to dance camps; and the circle of Philadelphia’s Centaur Book Shop and Press, whose focus on small-edition fine book printing appeal to Esherick’s sense of workmanship. He would also occasionally host literary and theatrical guests at his home and studio, which acted as a kind of crossroads between art forms.

A black and white photograph of the fireplace and doorway from the Bok House library.
Esherick’s largest commission was for Judge Curtis Bok, for whom he completed several architectural woodworking schemes and items of furniture between 1935 and 1938. This photograph shows the fireplace and doorway in the small library of the house (called the “book room” by the family). (Wharton Esherick Museum)

Although furniture would become his best-known work, it was initially a somewhat tangential endeavor for Esherick, who early on designed and built pieces as need arose or for special favors to friends. His early designs were heavily built and vaguely inspired by medieval forms, clearly expressing the joinery and carving techniques that went into their making. Some prominent furniture and interior commissions in the Philadelphia area, New York City, and elsewhere in the late 1920s and into the 1930s brought Esherick increasing attention as a designer. Many of his inventive asymmetric furniture forms—called “prismatic” or later even “Cubist” by commentators—showed an attention to the growing popularity of Art Deco, while his commitment to a high level of craftsmanship brought his functional work increasing acclaim. His growing success was all the more notable for the relative lack of a robust professional network for fine woodworking (academic programs, professional organizations, publications, and galleries) at the time.

An image of a music stand crafted by Wharton Esherick.
One of Esherick’s few works to be produced in serially (in an edition of twenty-four), this music stand typifies the slender organic quality of his later furniture work—which, in some ways, recalls the fluid treatment of material in his early wood sculpture. (RISD Museum)

Esherick’s largest commission in both physical and financial terms began in 1935 for the judge Curtis Bok (1897–1962; son of the Philadelphia publisher Edward Bok [1863–1930]) and took three years to complete. He provided stylistically inventive architectural elements and furniture for a suite of rooms including a library, a dining room, a music room, as well as a dramatic spiral staircase for the house’s entry hall. By the late 1930s, he was creating slender, organic furniture forms that became his signature in the latter part of his career, which lasted well into the postwar decades. A key vehicle of his success was the inclusion of some of this furniture—along with the dynamically cantilevered spiral stair he had added to his studio in 1930—in the “Pennsylvania Hill House” display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, designed in collaboration with Philadelphia architect George Howe (1886–1955). Esherick also continued expanding the studio building, adding a kitchen and living quarters as he spent ever more time on his work, especially after separating from Letty in 1937.

After Esherick’s death in 1970, his children and heirs incorporated the nonprofit Wharton Esherick Museum, preserving the studio building and its contents almost entirely intact. Open to the public since 1972, Esherick’s former studio tells the story of his practice through the preservation and interpretation of his living and working environment. Individual works by Esherick have been acquired by public collections around the United States—as have some of the interiors from the Bok House, salvaged before its demolition in 1989—but the Wharton Esherick Museum’s establishment created an institution uniquely placed to conserve and study Esherick’s varied artistic career and its lasting impact on Greater Philadelphia’s cultures of making. While commentators and historians have described him variously as an inheritor of the Arts and Crafts tradition, a linchpin of interwar modernism, or a father of postwar studio craft, Esherick’s chief legacy lies in his ability to bridge these categories and their wide chronological span.

Colin Fanning is Curatorial Fellow in the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He holds an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Of a Great City, 1927

Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of Esherick’s early jobs after he left the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was as a commercial artist, and the graphic arts—drawing, printmaking, and book illustration—would continue to play a prominent role in his artistic practice. Closely connected to the theater and literary communities of both Greater Philadelphia and New York City, he made a number of prints to promote theatrical performances or to be published as illustrations in books written by his friends and acquaintances (or, in one notable case, a small-batch edition of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Broad Axe, which Esherick deeply admired). This woodblock print, however, was more personal in nature, completed as a gift for the novelist and journalist Theodore Dreiser, whom Esherick had met in 1924 and often visited in New York City. This dynamic composition shows a fragmented, almost Cubist view of Dreiser’s apartment in midtown Manhattan. Despite Esherick’s penchant for rustic living on his Paoli homestead, he frequently traveled to and showed work in New York, moving with apparent ease between urban and rural settings.

“Of a Great City,” 1927. By Wharton Esherick (American, 1887–1970). Wood engraving. Sheet: 11 7/16 × 7 1/2 inches (29.1 × 19.1 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund from the Carl and Laura Zigrosser Collection, 1979.

Abstract Head, 1927

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Esherick worked at a range of scales in his sculpture, shaping wood into streamlined forms that meshed with wider trends in American art of the 1920s and 1930s. He completed a number of abstracted heads and busts like this work—some intended as specific portraits of other artists and authors he met and hosted at his rural home and studio—along with monumental figures in a similar streamlined style. Dance as an art form held significant appeal to Esherick, and a number of his sculptures and prints were more finished versions of sketches he made to study the fluidity of bodies in motion.

“Abstract Head,” 1927. By Wharton Esherick (American, 1877–1970). Rosewood. 10 1/2 × 5 1/2 inches (26.7 × 14 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Gertrude W. Dennis, 1996.

Drop-Leaf Desk, 1927

Wharton Esherick Museum

Esherick’s early furniture forms expressed influence from the American Arts and Crafts movement—typically built in heavy, solid shapes that referenced medieval forms, with decoration carved into the surfaces. This drop-leaf desk from 1927 is in this vein, but the carving has echoes of his printmaking work from the same period and shows his gradual move towards more original kinds of woodworking. The desk’s overall shape is relatively simple, but the faces are expressively carved with an abstracted scene of a winter forest—roots and bark patterns on the lower doors, bare branches on the desk front, and two birds (identified anecdotally as turkey vultures) on the upper cabinet doors. Esherick referred to such illustration-like ornament as “literature” and, although he would later move away from carved surfaces towards more sculptural forms in his furniture, this alludes to his belief in the importance of integration among the arts rather than hierarchical division.

Red Oak Drop-Leaf Desk, 1927, by Wharton Esherick. Photograph by James Mario. Image courtesy of the Wharton Esherick Museum.

Fireplace and Doorway from the Bok House Library

Wharton Esherick Museum

Esherick’s largest commission was for Judge Curtis Bok, for whom he completed several architectural woodworking schemes and items of furniture between 1935 and 1938. This photograph shows the fireplace and doorway in the small library of the house (called the “book room” by the family). The forms seem to express an influence from the angular language of Cubism, but Esherick’s design also brings the material itself into sharp focus, emphasizing the visual qualities of the wood grain and the detailed joinery techniques used in its construction. Through the doorway was the music room, and this photograph provides a glimpse of Esherick’s “prismatic” furniture and wall and ceiling paneling, and hints at his clever schemes to disguise the audio system equipment: the painting over the fireplace could be raised to expose a speaker grille, also designed by Esherick. Before the Bok House was demolished in 1989, the library fireplace and doorway, as well the music room and its contents, were carefully disassembled for acquisition by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, preserving an important aspect of his dynamic experiments in architectural form during the 1930s.

Bok House fireplace and doorway, c. 1938. Photograph by Edward Quigley. Photograph courtesy of the Wharton Esherick Museum.

Esherick Studio Spiral Stair

Library of Congress

One of the most distinctive interior features of Esherick’s studio is this cantilevered spiral staircase, which he added in 1930. Made from ax-hewn red oak, the impressive structural engineering of the stair (each step is a solid piece of wood, attached with a mortise-and-tenon joint to an upright log) plays counterpoint to the unusual trapezoidal forms and the elegant twisted spiral of the central trunk. This staircase became one of the most iconic pieces of Esherick’s work when it was removed from the studio for display at the “Pennsylvania Hill House” exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Designed by Philadelphia architect George Howe, the Hill House display also contained a set of chairs, a sofa, and a table by Esherick, gaining a massive amount of exposure for his innovative designs and fine workmanship. In this photograph, the short hanging stair at left dates from a later addition when Esherick added another second-floor room to his studio.

Music Stand

RISD Museum

One of Esherick’s few works to be produced in serially (in an edition of twenty-four), this music stand typifies the slender organic quality of his later furniture work—which, in some ways, recalls the fluid treatment of material in his early wood sculpture. The prototype of this form was made for a cellist friend, and includes the small but thoughtful detail of a lower shelf to hold a drink. By the time of the stand’s small-batch production, the postwar resurgence of interest in “studio craft” in the United States had taken hold, with many commentators placing Esherick in the simultaneous position as both a pioneer of the movement and one of its current driving forces.

Music Stand, 1962. Wharton Esherick (American, 1887–1970) Cherry wood. 43 3/4 × 19 inches (111.1 × 48.3 cm). Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, The Felicia Fund, 1988.002. Photography by Erik Gould, courtesy of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

Wharton Esherick c. 1930

Wharton Esherick Museum

Born in West Philadelphia in 1877, trained in painting and printmaking at Philadelphia-area institutions, and by 1911 making a living as a commercial artist, Wharton Esherick was hailed as “the dean of American craftsmen.” His interest in woodworking developed from early efforts at making and carving his own frames for his Impressionist-style paintings he tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to sell. By the time this photograph was taken in about 1930, by Esherick’s friend, photojournalist Conseulo Kanaga, Esherick had completed some of the furniture and interior commissions that would propel him to renown for his designs and high level of craftsmanship. Indeed, Kanaga was introduced to Esherick by one of his clients from New York City, Marjorie Content, also a photographer.

Wharton Esherick Paoli Studio

Library of Congress

Esherick began building his studio in 1926 on the land in Paoli, Pennsylvania, he had bought with his wife, Letty. He sited it at a remove from the farmhouse he shared with Letty and their children, preferring to work in relative solitude. Esherick built the heavy, tapering stone walls with the help of local stonemason Bert Kulp and introduced an intentional “sag” to the roof. His aim was to mimic the regional architecture of old barns, and he used cast-off stone and recycled timbers to enhance the impression of age. Despite these romantic touches, the studio was also designed with a keen eye toward function, with large north-facing windows for ample light and wide double doors for the passage of large logs or finished sculptures. Over the decades, Esherick also built living quarters and a kitchen within the barn-like structure and spent an increasing majority of his time there, sometimes renting out the farmhouse for extra income. Despite its seeming isolation, though, the studio was a gathering place for his friends, colleagues, and collaborators. Its bucolic location made it a peaceful place, and Esherick’s careful crafting of the building’s exterior and interior gave it a sense of timelessness. The last major alteration can be clearly seen in this photograph: the tower, which Esherick called a “silo,” was built around 1966 and appears as an irregular oval in plan. Esherick mixed pigment into the tower’s stucco as it was applied, creating a kind of abstract fresco of autumn colors.

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Related Reading

Bascom, Mansfield. Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind. New York: Abrams, 2010.

de Muzio, David. “Wharton Esherick’s Museum Room from the Curtis Bok House, Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania, 1935–1938.” Winterthur Portfolio 46, No. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 2012): E58­–E74.

Eisenhauer, Paul, ed. Wharton Esherick Studio and Collection. 3rd edition. Atglen, Pa: Schiffer Publishing, 2010.

Eisenhauer, Paul, and Lynne Farrington, eds. Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern. Atglen, Pa: Schiffer Publishing, 2010.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Wharton Esherick, Master of the Woodcut. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1991.

Polsky, Richard. “Oral history interview with Mansfield Bascom and Ruth Esherick Bascom about Wharton Esherick,” July 13, 1990. Washington, D.C.: Archives of American Art.

Ramljak, Suzanne. Crafting a Legacy: Contemporary American Crafts in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002.

Renwick Gallery and Minnesota Museum of Art. Woodenworks; Furniture Objects by Five Contemporary Craftsmen: George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, Wharton Esherick, Arthur Espenet Carpenter, Wendell Castle. St. Paul: Minnesota Museum of Art, 1972.

Skinner, Tina. Esherick, Maloof, and Nakashima: Homes of the Master Wood Artisans. Atglen, Pa: Schiffer Publishing, 2009.

Woodmere Art Museum and Wharton Esherick Museum. Prints by Wharton Esherick. Philadelphia: Woodmere Art Museum, 1984.

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