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Face the Music: Ben Solowey

Face the Music: Exhibit of Rarely-Seen Broadway Musicals Paintings of Artist Ben Solowey

By: Ellis Nassour

June 1, 2019: Theaterlovers will want to make tracks to Bedminister, PA, in Bucks County, for an exciting showcase of the charcoal portraits of theater and film luminaries by the celebrated artist Ben Solowey. The free exhibit, Face the Music: Ben Solowey’s Portraits of Broadway Musicals runs Saturdays and Sundays through June 16, from 1 to 5 P.M. at Solowey’s studio, 3551 Olde Bedminister Road. It will feature portraits by Solowey (1900 – 1978) not exhibited in 80 years.

Face the Music: Exhibit of Rarely-Seen Broadway Musicals Paintings of Artist Ben Solowey

By: Ellis Nassour

June 1, 2019: Theaterlovers will want to make tracks to Bedminister, PA, in Bucks County, for an exciting showcase of the charcoal portraits of theater and film luminaries by the celebrated artist Ben Solowey. The free exhibit, Face the Music: Ben Solowey’s Portraits of Broadway Musicals runs Saturdays and Sundays through June 16, from 1 to 5 P.M. at Solowey’s studio, 3551 Olde Bedminister Road. It will feature portraits by Solowey (1900 – 1978) not exhibited in 80 years.

In the 30s there were more than 200 productions a season. The  number was cut in half during the decade of the Depression, but shows on the boards included Anything Goes, Babes In Arms, Cabin in the Sky, The Little Foxes, Of Mice and Men,Room Service, Of Thee I Sing, and  You Can’t Take It With You. 

“This exhibit transports the visitor back in time to a past that both in social and aesthetic terms seems idyllic today. David Leopold, director of the Ben Solowey Studio Solowey was a painter whose studio-gallery stands as a tribute to his traditional skills and visions. We’re happy to use this exhibit to showcase his genius to the public.”

Time travel in the studio’s current exhibition involves the summer and fall of 1924, which Solowey spent in Europe after graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The intent is to demonstrate how the trip, especially the time spent in France, influenced Solowey’s subsequent painting style. The paintings and works on paper not only document the trip, they also bracket it works made before and after.

The 30 Solowey portraits in the exhibit and his over 900 works include George Abbott, Ethel Barrymore, Fanny Brice, Noel Coward, Ruth Draper, Jimmy Durante, George and Ira Gershwin, Mitzi Green [who introduced classics “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady and the Tramp” in Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms], George Kaufman, Ann Miller, actress Margaret Perry [Antoinette Perry’s daughter], actress Benay Venuta, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Tamara [who introduced “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in Jerome Kern’s Roberta] – not to mention stage, screen, and TV legend Eve Arden; and choreographer George Balanchine.

From 1929 to 1942, Ben Solowey was not only a celebrated easel painter, but also a preeminent artist, early on with his work appearing along with Al Hirschfeld’s in The New York Times and Herald Tribune.  

It was an era of shows by Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Vernon Duke, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Kurt Weill. While he and Hirschfeld sketched rehearsals and live performances, Solowey preferred to work at his studio on Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. 

Hirschfeld made his debut in 1926 and continued to contribute caricatures until his death in 2003, just short of his 100th birthday. Solowey’s tenure was shorter, from 1929 to late 1942 when he left New York for a permanent move to Bucks County. 

Solowey was one of the first artists to introduce halftone to newspaper reproduction. Leopold, also an archivist for Hirschfeld, notes, “Ben chose charcoal because of its quick response to his hand, and preferred strong light to make an indelible mark on the page and reduce the possibility of error in reproduction. Although their styles could not be more different, their approach to their subject was the same. They drew from life.”

Leopold says that visiting the exhibition “you will understand why in 1942 Ben gave up the great life he had in New York in theater and exhibiting his canvases at museums and galleries. He wanted to live on his beautiful farm, a perfect atmosphere for an artist at work.” Later work were European landscape studies mostly of France. The studio has been featured in Architectural Digest, Pennsylvania Heritage, and The Discerning Traveler.

A brief biography of Ben Solowey
Solowey was 14 when he came to United States from Poland via St. Petersburg. It’s said that on receiving his first ice cream cone, he held it out to draw it. Despite family disapproval, he painted. At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Solowey embarked on the traditional program of drawing from plaster casts and nude models. Upon completing his studies, he sailed to France for eight months experimenting with the spectrum of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, from Monet and Seraut, and mastering styles and techniques he’d soon call his own.

In his 14 years in New York, beginning in 1928, Solowey never painted a cityscape, practically de rigueur for artists. He chose to capture the energy of the arts.

In 1930, Solowey met his muse, Rae Landis. It was love at first sight. He proposed two nights later. They married two months later. She became Solowey’s primary model. It was said that “As with Cezanne, who painted his wife innumerable times, Ben found in Rae an ever-changing face of beauty, whose seeming etherealness transported a viewer well beyond the confines of the picture frame.”

In the mid-30s, they escaped New York summers, heading south to Bucks County, and soon set about renovating colonial farmhouse and barn on a secluded 34-acre farm. Paintings flowed from the studio to exhibitions around the country. In 1942, they moved to Bedminister. In addition to painting and sculpting, Solowey ventured into photography and cabinet making. 

The artist suffered a debilitating heart attack in 1966, but continued to paint and draw. In his final years, in the early 70s, his work touched on figures from mythology. 

At www.solowey.com, visit the A – Z index of Solowey’s theater and film subjects, which includes the show/films they were in.

Step into theater history at the Ben Solowey Studio

Just one story. It’s about the long forgotten Center Theatre, the twin, though smaller, to Radio City Music Hall. 

When producer Max Gordon came to John D. Rockefeller in the 30s about investing in The Great Waltz, a musical based on Johann Strauss’ relationship with his father, set to Strauss melodies with lyrics and a book by Moss Hart, he had no idea Rockefeller would not only say yes, but also offer the new Center Theatre, part of the brand new Rockefeller Center. It was the first production in the 3,000 seat theatre – half the size of its twin, Radio City Music Hall and only a block away. The show had a cast of 180, over 500 costumes and massive sets that moved by an innovative hydraulic system. The “Blue Danube” finale brought a 53-piece orchestra up from the depths, eight crystal chandeliers from the flies, and the cast waltzing on and on. It was the biggest spectacle Broadway had seen. Most critics weren’t bedazzled, but ticket buyers packed the theatre for months. One of the draws was the stunning English beauty Marie Burke. Sadly, it was her last appearance on Broadway. She returned to the U.K. and the West End.

The drive from New York by auto is approximately 90 minutes in favorable traffic. For directions to the Ben Solowey Studio in Bedminster, visit www.solowey.com. There’s also bus service into New Hope.    

In Bedminister, there’s the Piper Tavern [www.pipertavern.com], five minutes away from the Studio; and, five miles away, the Plumsteadville Inn, www.plumsteadvilleinn.com]

Attractions near Bedminister

New Hope, PA, an energetic arts community and location of the Buck’s County Playhouse, Peddler’s Village, Penn’s Purchase Factory Stores, restaurants, antique shops, and galleries; cross the Delaware River bridge to historic Lambertville, NJ, founded in 1705, where the charming streets lined with Federal townhouses and Victorian homes lead to the restored 19th-century train depot with its waterside restaurant; 12 miles away is The  Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA, named for and including memorabilia of Pulitzer Prize winner James A. Michener, author of Tales of the South Pacific, the basis for the musical South Pacific]; and the 65-acre Pearl S. Buck House, National Historic Landmark, exhibit and cultural center, and gardens [$15, $12 seniors], 520 Dublin Road, Perkasie, PA [www.pearlsbuck.org], stone farmhouse of the humanitarian and Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author [The Good Earth].