Review by Ken Ratner, Curator & Collector
If the spirit of Robert Henri, an artist who encouraged his students to look to the commonplace for inspiration, were to be conjured up today, I’m afraid he would be disappointed in what he would find. Too often, today’s artists do not look to their immediate surroundings and paint scenes of everyday life, as Henri extolled his followers to do. Instead, they frequently focus their artwork away from their immediate environment.
There is an artist painting in New York today of whom I have no doubt Henri would greatly approve. Her name is Patricia Melvin. For the past twenty-five years, Melvin, like Henri and his fellow members of the Ashcan School, has canvassed the city in search of scenes of everyday life, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. She lives in the heart of Greenwich Village. And, like Henri’s friend and colleague, John Sloan, an artist admired by Melvin, who also lived in the Village, her paintings are a celebration of life in which she captures bits of joy.
As an art collector for the past twenty years, I have focused most of my collecting on the Ashcan School artists and Social Realists of the early to mid-twentieth century. Their work captures the spirit and character of people and place, with an emphasis on humanity. About ten years ago, I decided to expand my collecting to modern day artists who not only show great proficiency, but also share the same understanding and empathy for the human condition as these great artists of the past. One day,while looking at paintings of New York by contemporary artists, I came upon the work of Patricia Melvin. I was exhilarated to see qualities that are similar to those displayed by artists whom I greatly admire and a high level of skill in her work. Her pictures stood out far ahead of her contemporaries, and still stand out today.
I was drawn to her subject matter of life on New York City’s streets, in which she utilized warm or cool colors, as particular pictures required; the calm, order and tranquility in her compositions; the often dramatic sky in which you can feel the wind blowing and the excellent sense of balance in her work. Her café and park scenes, which give the viewer the feeling that you are right there observing real life from close proximity, are particularly striking. “The Art Student (Peter Cooper Park),” which depicts an artist sketching on a park bench, with a weary man resting opposite him, with her superb shadowing, comes to mind. This gem truly is one of her masterworks and was quickly purchased by a discerning collector. Her descending views of the city, such as “Jody’s View (The Bowery at 7th Street),” give Manhattan a sense of excitement and her river and bridge scenes call to mind Robert Henri’s East River views. She is a realist, but has a painterly quality to her work, utilizing impressionist techniques when applicable. She is not an artist who works from photographs. There is no precisionist quality or stiffness in her work. She is a plein air artist steeped in the tradition of the great artists of the past.
Patricia Melvin also excels at capturing the seasons. There’s a crispness in her autumn scenes; you can almost smell the cherry blossoms blooming in her scenes of spring and her ability to capture the bleak beauty of winter stands out far above her contemporary city painters. One picture in particular, “View From My Studio,Snow,” that I included in an exhibit I curated, “Painting the Metropolis: Visions of Lower Manhattan by 19 Contemporary Artists,” at the Educational Alliance, was so well received that a prominent New York gallery director singled it out as his favorite among the 40 or more works on display. I must confess that it was mine as well. The painting rivals some of the best city pictures I’ve come across, including works by Sloan, Bellows, and the like. And, like Bellows and Sloan, who were interested in recording the changes that were occurring in the city, Melvin observes and portrays these transformations in her work as well. Two examples are”Tower Crane, Bowery” and “Bay Crane, St. George’s,” in which construction istaking place.
Even though Patricia Melvin is primarily thought of as a city painter, some of her best work is done in the country. Her excursions to the Berkshires have produced some truly outstanding work. There is a great sense of calm that prevails in her panoramic views, such as “Sunset on the Housatonic,” or in her more intimate views, such as”House Painters on the Williams River.” The artist has also executed some delightful florals. No matter what subject she paints, her work, above all, is interesting. It’s little wonder that the Cahoon Museum of American Art and the Noble Maritime Collection, two noteworthy institutions, have acquired works by her for their permanent collections. And, as someone who has been fortunate enough to acquire works by some of the best artists, I can truthfully say that the three paintings I own by Patricia Melvin have given me as much pleasure as any picture in my collection.
– Ken Ratner, Curator and Collector
New York, NY, 2010
The Cahoon Museum of American Art, in Cotuit, MA, acquires “St. Mark’s Church, Fall.”
Mere blocks from Patricia’s studio in the heart of New York City’s East Village, a part of the old Lower East Side, stands the historic St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue and Tenth Street. The Church has given its name to the nearby street, St. Mark’s Place. This scene, painted over the course of many days, was done by capturing early morning light as it streamed across the plaza and the facade of the building. As she was winding up the painting she saw an old woman sit down for the age old ritual of feeding the pigeons that clustered on the stones of the Church grounds. Adding this woman was the final touch to the composition.