Rediscovering Raymond Theel

A new exhibit shines a light on a forgotten Montgomery County Artist.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Impressionist Raymond Theel lived and worked for decades in Jarrettown, but you wouldn’t know it from the small body of work he left behind.

A fire at his home and studio in 1943 wiped out the bulk of his paintings. Today, only around 20 of his paintings are known to exist. And, through November, 14 of them are on display at the Woodmere Art Museum in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia.

“We hope to expose people to artists that are under-recognized. There are forgotten artists everywhere,” explained Rachel McCay, assistant curator at the Woodmere. “One of the things the art community looks to us for is bringing to light the artists that had a quiet career and worked in an unrelated field but created art that was remarkable.”

It’s a bill Theel certainly fits. Born in Ambler in 1891 and living in Upper Dublin as a child, Theel enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. While studying there, he travelled twice to Europe on scholarships.

He moved to Jarrettown in 1917 and worked first as a farmer before establishing himself as an artist. During the 1930s, he was an artist in the advertising industry, where it’s believed that his work painting billboards inspired his use of larger canvasses for his paintings.

By time of the fire in 1943, Theel was working for Standard Press Steel in Jenkintown. He enjoyed a solo exhibition at St. Paul’s Reformed Church in Fort Washington toward the end of 1951 before passing away the next year.

And for the most part, the story ends there. There are few, if any, records of Theel taking part in exhibitions or even selling his pieces. And, situated in eastern Montgomery County, he wasn’t a part of any of the then-thriving artist’s groups in nearby Philadelphia or Bucks County like many of his contemporaries.  

For years, two of his pieces hung in the Woodmere, and were part of group exhibitions in 1993 and 2011. But it wasn’t until McCay took notice of one of them, “Interior of the Woods,” that the quality of his work truly began coming to light.

“It’s so compelling and so remarkable that it inspired us to investigate this artist that was represented only by two works,” she explained.

Now the Theel exhibit, called Making a Big Impressionism, contains nearly every piece available — a collection that McCay said portrays an unexpected amount of versatility for the artist.

Seeing what’s probably the largest number of works in one place revealed contrasting color palettes — high-key, saturated golds and greens in some works, muted and subdued greens and blues in others — different approaches to brush work and renderings of various subjects, from landscapes to portraits and still lifes.

“That’s not to say there isn’t continuity, but the variety of styles, subjects and approach  really surprised me,” McCay said.

The exhibit also pits the smaller pieces, those on canvasses around 24 by 24 inches, to his larger works that are five square feet. Those reveal a different aesthetic, with looser brush strokes and larger patches of color, compared to thicker layers of paint and a “dabbing” approach to his smaller paintings.

McCay also points to the feeling of “immersion” the large pieces create, thanks in large part to Theel’s use of texture. “When you look at the larger paintings, there’s a difference in his approach,” she noted.

It’s elements like these that McCay is excited to display at the Woodmere. Along with the works themselves, Making a Big Impressionism includes biographical items like archival photos and a printed interview with a family friend. And, the exhibit will close with a gallery talk, The Enigma of Raymond Theel, on Nov. 1.

“We have some amazing pieces in our collection, and programs like these let us round out the artists, collect more, and allow Woodmere to grow,” said McCay.

Making a Big Impressionism is on display at the Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave. in Philadelphia, through Nov. 1. For information, call 215.247.0476 or visit www.woodmereartmuseum.org.

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