On June 25th, 2022, LFPL welcomed Les and Sue Fox to give a talk on their recent book release about the lesser known impressionist (and local) Fern Isabel Coppedge. In fact, the Kalmia Club owns one of her pieces: “Village Road” (given by Fern). It was once displayed in the Lambertville Library. The painting currently resides in The River House in New Hope. Kalmia will be selling prints of that work in the fall to go toward their community outreach and scholarship programs: https://buckscountyherald.com/stories/kalmia-club-will-sell-fern-coppedge-prints,15702
The Foxs are also beginning a scholarship program for future budding “Ferns”: http://americanartadvisor.com/art-scholarship-fund.html
Below is the Zoom recording of the event. Listen in on a colorful Q&A with Sue & Les Fox. Hear about our local diamond, Fern Coppedge and the process that Sue and Les went through to bring her lost story and catalogue of art to light. The event starting recording 10 minutes into the interview, and we apologize for the technical difficulties with Zoom. The PowerPoint is started at 18:50 but the knowledge about Fern is well worth the listen beforehand.
A written Q&A was done before the event and the script is posted below:
- What started your Fern Coppedge history journey? Are you from the area?
As New York – New Jersey people. Sue and I first became interested in Fern Coppedge when The Michener Museum presented its retrospective of her work and a summary of Fern’s life in September, 1990. Unfortunately, Sue was pregnant with our only child, our wonderful daughter Jamison Chester Fox, 31, who is now a songwriter in Nashville and a former music teacher, and we could not attend the 1-month show. After enjoying and studying the Michener’s catalog “Fern Coppedge: A Forgotten Woman” for years, and after visiting the Michener many times to see Fern’s work in their galleries, we became more and more fascinated with this unpretentious Kansas farm girl who somehow achieved amazing success in the art world a century ago despite the support of only her husband, a science teacher in Topeka, and her family, none of whom were wealthy or influential. And despite the roadblocks set up to discourage women artists from being treated as equals to male artists who were often less talented, which thankfully has been improving since the 1920’s and 1930’s. By 2019, nearly 30 years later, we finally gave up hope that someone else would investigate Fern’s life and work and write a truly comprehensive book about her. So we contacted Michele Stricker, now Deputy Librarian of the State of New Jersey, who wrote the “Forgotten Woman” essay for the 1990 Michener exhibition catalog. Michele’s advice was that if we wanted to know more about Fern, we needed to contact her living relatives and scour every possible vintage news story. However, Michele cautioned us that because Fern and Robert Coppedge did not have any children (or grandchildren), it would be difficult to find family members who knew a great deal about her life. She was right. But this did not discourage us from tracking down a dozen great nieces and nephews (all in our book) who would help us re-create the artist’s life far beyond what had ever been previously published or known. As you can see from our Acknowledgements pages in the book, we contacted more than 100 resources, including every art institution ever associated with Fern, and every research source from local art clubs to the Smithsonian! Everyone was thrilled to help us! With sheer persistence, we found photos, letters and all kinds of documents related to Fern and Robert, including their 1904 Marriage Certificate and Fern’s beautiful engagement ring.
- Do you own one of her pieces yourself? What drew you to it if so?
We’ve owned more than 10 Coppedge paintings over the years, but we sold them all to help finance our own and our daughter’s lifestyle. However, recently a man named Robert Roche in Mississippi of all places contacted us to see if we were interested in a 30″ x 36″ Gloucester Harbor (Massachusetts) scene painted by Fern circa 1930 in oil on canvas. The painting had been in the Roche family for 90 years. It’s absolutely beautiful, but it suffered water damage in the wake of Hurricane Camille and neither he nor anyone else he had contacted was willing to undertake a major restoration project. We bought the painting from Mr. Roche, and we are currently having it expertly restored (which will take several months) so we can loan it to museums and share it with art lovers. (See “Before” image below.) If the opportunity presents itself, we’d like to buy another winter scene and maybe a colorful spring or summer landscape painted in Pennsylvania.
- How were you able to gather so much information on her pieces’ whereabouts?
We started with the online auction databases including AskArt and ArtNet. We also contacted every art dealer who had ever sold a Fern Coppedge painting publicly (as well as other major dealers and museums) and asked them for images, descriptions and known provenance for any other Coppedge paintings they had sold or that a client owned and wished us to consider for the Catalogue Raisonne. We also looked through hundreds of vintage newspapers and magazines, as well as Fern’s Scrapbooks which were donated to the Michener Museum by the family of Aimee MacNeill, a close friend of the artist who inherited all 100 of her unsold paintings after Fern passed away in 1951, which we are still investigating. We shared our findings and discoveries with the Kuns / Coppedge family and others we considered to be knowledgeable about the artist’s work in order to include anything we might have missed and to be sure that everyone agreed that all of the 400+ paintings which are now in the Catalogue Raisonne (a “work in progress”) are genuine. Based on careful and extensive research, the C.R. presents our best attempt to date paintings with unquestionable documentation as well as by comparison to known paintings with precise dates. As stated in our book, if we were uncertain of the authenticity of a painting, it was not included in the C.R. and we are still researching many paintings. We believe that Fern’s entire body of work is at least three times the 400 paintings we have authenticated to date, and we expect to publish a larger list of paintings in a future C.R. update and possibly a second edition of our book if there is popular demand for this. We believe that we are now considered the “experts” on the life and work of Fern Coppedge, and we encourage people to contact us with new information and paintings.
- Do you have a favorite work out of all of them?
Perhaps our favorite Coppedge painting is “Back Road To Pipersville” illustrated on Pages 74, 75 and 76 in our book. This paining was originally exhibited in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the title “The Road To Pipersville” but “Back Road” popped up somewhere along the way. With some effort, we were able to get in touch with the daughter of the owners who gifted this incredible work to the Michener Museum in 1999. We spoke to her for hours and learned the complete history of the painting starting in 1938 when her grandfather bought it for her grandmother as a wedding gift for $1,000. The original bill of sale was extracted from the Michener’s archives so that we could publish it. Laura Igoe, Kathryn Lunch and Birgitta Bond at the Michener were tremendously helpful in our research effort and we are grateful for their participation. We could probably choose 10 other masterpieces by Fern that we love as much, or almost as much, as “Pipersville” but this one is really special. Unlike many of Fern’s paintings we’ve never seen a duplicate or similar version of this painting. Nor have we ever seen any pencil sketches of this or any other Coppedge paintings. Interestingly, while we were researching the book we drove around the Pipersville area of Bucks County in an attempt to find the exact spot where Fern painted this heart warming scene. No luck! While many of the artist’s paintings relate to actual locations, such as her many 1930 variations of The Old Grist Mill (now the Bucks County Playhouse) and both Fern Coopedge’s and Daniel Garber’s homes on the Delaware River (Boxwood and Bittersweet Cottage), which still exist as neighboring properties along River Road, the actual location of Pipersville remains a mystery to us.
- Are there any other less known artists that you are interested in? Who is your favorite well known?
We are partial to other American Women artists who painted in the 1920’s and 1930’s. One of our favorite paintings is an oil on canvas by a lesser known artist named Gladys Mitchell who created “Back Yards / Oak Ridge” in 1922. (The painting is signed and dated.) It’s very similar to the type of winter scenes Coppedge painted. Both the colors and the style look a lot like Fern’s work and we were thrilled to acquire it at auction many years ago. We also like the work of John W. Bentley who painted in Woodstock at the same time Fern studied there with John F. Carlson at the Summer School program of the Art Students League circa 1915. Carlson specialized in winter / snow scenes and inspired Fern to specialize in the depiction of snow in all its colors and glory. One of Fern’s paintings in the CR has a label on the back indicating that it was given as a gift by Fern to Carlson. We own a fantastic winter landscape by Bentley that also resembles a Fern Coppedge painting. We may be selling this painting at auction soon to help support our new “Fern Coppedge Art Scholarship” program.
- Do you recommend any local art museums for our Lambertville community that might not be as well known? Do you have a favorite?
Our favorite art museum is, of course, the Michener Museum in Doylestown which owns 20 Coppedge paintings, and usually displays “Pipersville” prominently along with a few others. In our book we provide several pages of all known public places representing Fern’s work, including the Reading Art Museum, who owns a single (monumental) winter scene which was included in the 1990 exhibition, and the Philadelphia Art Museum who owns a nice Gloucester scene donated by Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, who also donated their entire collection of Pennsylvania Impressionism to the Michener. Sadly, the Lenfest Foundation is being phased out in 2022, but their legacy will live on in the Michener Museum, in our book, and in their good deeds everywhere. As part of our Fern Coppedge Art Scholarship program, we will encourage more museums, notably the Women’s Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., the PAFA and MOMA, to add Fern to their permanent collections. NOTE: A beautiful winter scene by Fern Coppedge is currently on loan to the River House in New Hope by the Kalmia Club in Lambertville. (Story in our book.)
- What got you interested in the arts? Do you dabble as well? What is your favorite media if so?
Sue and I have always been interested in the arts. Sue has a Masters Degree in Library Science but she is also a master of home design and an expert “stager” of houses. In fact, back in1984 we restored two 19th century Victorian homes which Sue decorated and furnished with authentic Victorian sofas, a dining room set and other period pieces. From 2004 to 2006, we opened an art gallery in Wyckoff, New Jersey, our home town, which featured a Fern Coppedge painting which is listed in the CR. Sue’s artistic inclination is design. I’m an amateur Abstract Expressionist / Modernist in the spirit of Rolph Scarlett. I paint in acrylic because oil is much more challenging and unforgiving.
- Is there any advice you can share with our writers out there, whether biographical or otherwise?
First, don’t let anyone discourage you from pursuing any subject matter you truly love. Second, always use pictures to emphasize the ideas and stories you want others to understand and share. Third, tell your stories in your own words but don’t be afraid to quote poets, historians or artists if you recall something they said that agrees with your beliefs.
Thank you Les & Sue for sharing your passion for our local beauty displayed in Fern’s art. They have donated several copies of their book for the library to sell to further our own art book collection. Those who would like to know more about Fern in detail and have access to her catalogue raisonné, come to Lambertville Free Public Library and get yourself a copy of this stunning book!
*The image at the header of the blog is called “New Hope” and also painted by Fern Isabel Coppedge. It is accessible at https://www.wikiart.org/en/fern-coppedge/new-hope-bucks-county-1935 *