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Peter Miller: Forgotten Woman of American Modernism
Francis M. Naumann
Peter Miller (1913–1996) was born Henrietta Meyers. Her last name changed when she married Earle Miller, a fellow artist whom she met while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the mid-1930s, and she changed her first name to Peter when she began showing her work in public exhibitions in New York in the 1940s (in an effort to avoid the ingrained sexism of the day). She had two one-person shows at the prestigious gallery of Julien Levy in New York, where her work was well-received. Her paintings in this period display the unmistakable influence of the Catalan Surrealist painter Joan Miró, whom she likely met on a trip to Europe in the mid-1930s. Over the years, she and her husband acquired several of his paintings, the most important of which—his Horse, Pipe and Red Flower (Still Life with Horse) of 1920—they donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1986. Throughout her life, she maintained studios in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where she lived for most of the year, and in Espanola, New Mexico, where she and her husband spent the winter months. There Miller established a close relationship with the Pueblo people, and the influence of their culture would also find its way into her paintings. A number of paintings from this period contain cryptographic symbols set against a monochromatic ground, as if to mimic an indecipherable visual language. Her interest in the symbols and pictorial language practiced by Native Americans was shared by a host of artists in New York at this time, many of whom would go on to become the leading abstract painters of the 1940s and 1950s. The work of Peter Miller, by contrast, was rarely seen. Although she continued to maintain a studio and painted well into her seventies, she gradually withdrew from the New York art world, preferring instead to spend more time in the solitude of her homes in Pennsylvania and New Mexico, where, over the years, her contribution to the art of this period was slowly but surely forgotten.
Keywords: Peter Miller / surrealism / Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts / Joan Miró / Pueblo / New Mexico
Peter Miller, born Henrietta Myers (1913–1996), was an American Surrealist painter who, in the 1940s, had two shows at the prestigious gallery of Julien Levy in New York City, the premier showcase for Surrealist paintings in America (Fig. 1).
Yet today she is a forgotten figure in the history of American modernism, due in part to her gender (it was in order to avoid the sexism of the day that she changed her name to Peter) and to the fact that she was financially independent, meaning that she did not feel the constraint of having to sell her paintings to survive and, therefore, made little effort to promote herself or her work. She was raised in Hanover, Pennsylvania, a small town about 100 miles west of Philadelphia. Her family owned a large, Standardbred horse farm and co-owned a shoe company as well as the town newspaper. Henrietta took an interest in art at a very early age and, upon graduation from the Arlington Hall Junior School for Women outside of Washington, D.C., she applied for study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. On her application form, she wrote that she wanted to study art because she “would rather paint than do anything else.” She even went so far as to state: “I would rather fail at painting than succeed at anything else.”1 Miller lived by these words, and remained a dedicated painter throughout her life.
While at the Academy, she studied under the American Impressionist Daniel Garber and, privately, with the Philadelphia modernist Arthur B. Carles, a former teacher at the Academy who gave lessons in his studio. It was probably while studying with these artists that she painted her first Self Portrait (Fig. 2), the dark outlines and divisions of color suggesting sources in Post-Impressionism, whereas the unmistakable confidence displayed by the young woman is an indication of the steadfastness with which she would pursue her chosen profession.
It was while at the Academy that Henrietta met her future husband, C. Earle Miller, who studied sculpture and printmaking. In 1934, during her last year at the Academy, she traveled to Europe for the first time, where, likely through letters of introduction from Carles, she met Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and, most notably, Juan Miró, the great Catalan Surrealist painter whose work would have a profound influence on hers throughout the 1930s and 1940s.2 Upon the conclusion of their studies, the Millers traveled to New Mexico, where they both fell in love with the terrain and, in having established a close relationship with the Native American people, considered it their spiritual home.
In 1935, Henrietta and Earle Miller married, whereupon she began using the name “Peter Miller,” for she felt collectors and critics would take her paintings more seriously if she were identified as male (and she reportedly chose the name Peter because she liked the idea that it was derived from the Greek word for “rock” or “stone”). For the remaining years of their lives, they lived on a farm they purchased in Chester County, Pennsylvania, but traveled for the winter months to a ranch they built outside of Espanola, New Mexico. In both locations she built a studio, where she continued to be drawn to the works of Miró (reinforced by annual trips to Barcelona), whose work was widely exhibited in America during this period. Miró showed regularly at the gallery of Pierre Matisse in New York, was included in Alfred Barr’s Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936, and his first major retrospective was organized by James Johnson Sweeney for the Museum of Modern Art in 1941. Through these shows Miller became intimately familiar with his various styles—from the early Cubist-inspired paintings of the late teens, to the symbol-packed Surrealist landscapes of the mid-1920s, and to the large paintings of the 1930s and 40s that contain flat but colorful organic shapes floating against an opaque but ethereal ground (which, at first glance, seem entirely abstract, but which on close inspection never are). Peter Miller’s fascination with Miró led her to acquire examples of his work for her own collection. In the late 1930s or early 1940s, she and her husband purchased his Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) from the Pierre Matisse Gallery, which, a few years later, they exchanged for his earlier Horse, Pipe and Red Flower (Still Life with Horse), 1920, paintings that would quietly exert their influence on Miller’s work for many years to come.
The influence of Miró on Miller’s work in this period is undeniable, a characteristic that was much in evidence when her paintings were shown for the first time in 1937 at the Santa Fe Art Museum (now the New Mexico Museum of Art), and then in two shows in 1944 and 1945 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. Several paintings included in these shows looked so much like the work of the Catalan master that they could be visually confused with them, as in the case of her Fantasy Figure in a Landscape (Fig. 3), which depicts an amorphic, cartoonlike figure against a blank, monochromatic background, much in the manner of Miró.
The first show at the Julien Levy Gallery was accompanied by a catalogue with an introduction by Robert Goldwater, a professor of art history at Queens College and author of Primitivism in Modern Painting, the first systematic study to trace the influence of primitive cultures on the art of the modern school.3 In his catalogue for the Miller show, Goldwater not only pointed out the influence of Miró, but he quite accurately also saw a connection between her paintings and the work of Native American artists, especially the painters of sand pictures, which he pointed out are by design temporary, but often charged with meaning that is acutely powerful. “More and more she has merged the two [Miró and Native American art],” he wrote, “has taken the sophisticated shapes and given them a primitive setting.” He thought that Miller’s thin veils of paint evoked the “the distant and absolute qualities of the Indian paintings,” but, at the same time, he warned against taking this comparison too far. “These pictures are not patterns (the denial of space),” he concluded, “but rather bring before us brilliant, symbolic creatures who move fluidly through an unending continuum.”4 Reviewers of both shows noted the similarities with Miró, but in writing about the second show, the noted critic Henry McBride (who was to become a lifelong friend) was relieved to find that it had dissipated. “Peter Miller is now entirely American, and Western American at that,” he wrote, “for she gets her motifs in the Taos region of New Mexico and places them up in a painting language that would not shock the Indians too much and which possibly they would understand better than the white—for there is something of sign-writing in it as well as Indian color.”5
Miller rarely signed or dated her paintings, but from their titles listed in the catalogue and their description by reviewers, we can identify several that were shown in the Julien Levy exhibitions. Her Matador (Fig. 4) for example, is likely the depiction of a bull fighter wearing a beret and dressed in full regalia, whereas Fighting Bull is either the straightforward depiction of a powerful bull facing the viewer—inscribed on the verso Toro Bravo (Fig. 5)—or the depiction of a bullfight (Fig. 6), the matador visible at the top of the picture inserts a banderillo (a sharp barbed stick) into the bull’s shoulder, while the horns, feet and tail of the massive thrashing creature are discernable only when separated from the green abstract shapes that dominate the composition (modulations of colors that resemble Miró’s Still Life with Shoe, a painting she and her husband then still owned).
Although it is not inscribed, it is tempting to identify her large canvas of five amorphic, Miróesque figures whose bodies are fused with their immediate environment and the distant landscape as her Five Ceremonial Dancers (Fig. 7), shown in her first exhibition at the Levy Gallery. Aside from Miró, there are elements in this painting that can be traced to the figurative distortions of Picasso as well as to the atmospheric and ethereal environments created by Arshile Gorky, who was showing in this same period at the Julien Levy Gallery. The subject of Miller’s Five Ceremonial Dancers came from sources in Native American culture, as did her Snake Priestess (Fig. 8), the image of a primitive stone goddess with serpents in hand, a sun hovering overhead, or, in another painting called Devotee (Fig. 9), a worshipful figure placed below a solar orb paying homage to a superior being that seems to emerge from a rock formation. The latter of these pictures gives the impression of having been scratched and rubbed, as if to suggest that the painting itself represents the physical residue of some unknown ritualistic practice.
There are other paintings from this period that are comprised entirely of cryptographic symbols set against a monochromatic ground, as if to mimic a cryptic visual language (Fig. 10).
Miller’s interest in the symbols and pictorial language practiced by Native Americans was shared by a host of artists in New York at this time who would go on to become the leading abstract painters of the next decade: Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and others. Whereas these artists derived their imagery from examples of primitive art found around the world (African, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, etc.), Miller’s paintings can be traced specifically to pictographs she had seen etched into rock formations and various utilitarian artifacts made by the Tewa, an indigenous Pueblo people whose homeland borders the Rio Grande north of Santa Fe where the Miller ranch was located (in the mid-1930s they purchased 85 acres, which allowed them to lease an additional 5,000 acres from the Bureau of Land Management). Miller would spend the remaining years of her career devoted to an exploration of these mysterious signs and symbols, presenting them into an abstract language that only she could decipher. All of the New Mexico property was given to the Pueblos upon her death.
Between her two shows at the Levy Gallery, Peter Miller was included in The Women, a show of thirty women artists held at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery on West 57th Street in New York in June of 1945. She was here in the company of many artists who would become notable in the years to come: Louise Bourgeois (who was married to Robert Goldwater), Lee Krasner, Irene Rice Pereira, Kay Sage, Charmion Von Wiegand, etc.6 Although Miller received a fair amount of critical acclaim from these shows, she slowly withdrew from the New York art world, preferring instead to spend more time communing with nature at her homes in Pennsylvania and New Mexico. With the exception of group and regional shows, she exhibited her work rarely, yet she continued to actively maintain a studio and painted well into her seventies, climbing steps to her studio daily, which she described as “her favorite walk.”7 To those who knew her well, she shared her devotion to an almost mystical spiritualism, yet she remained staunchly individualistic, possessed with a boundless enthusiasm for life and her generosity was seemingly limitless. In 1986, she and her husband gave their beloved Miró painting, Horse, Pipe and Red Flower (Still Life with Horse), to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fortuitously arranging for its transport to the museum hours before their home in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, tragically caught fire and burned to the ground).8 In 1991 her husband died and, suffering from the debilitating effects of a car accident that caused a brain injury and left her badly scarred, she died at her farm in Pennsylvania in 1996 at the age of eighty-three.
1 Peter Miller’s application for study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, n.d. (but ca. 1930), reproduced in Andrea Miller Theisson, Art and the Impossible: Godmothers, Grandmothers & A Greater Vision – A History of Peter Miller, Women Artists, Famous Friends, Creative Spirits and Dreams (privately printed, 2015), p.7.
2 This information comes from an interview with Jeffrey Valocchi, and is recorded in Theisson, Art and the Impossible, p. 20. Valocchi recalls that she met “the Matisse brothers,” by which he likely meant Henri Matisse and his son Pierre.
3 Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Painting (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938).
4 Robert Goldwater, Peter Miller, Julien Levy Gallery, New York, opening May 9, 1944.
5 Henry McBride, “Other Worlds: Dissatisfied with this One the Artist Thinks up Another,” The Sun, October 13, 1945, p. 9. The second show was called Peter Miller, and opened on October 9, 1945.
6 The Women, exhibition catalogue, Art of this Century, New York, June 12-July 7, 1945. The show was preceded by 31 Women Artists, held from January 5-February 6, 1943, in which Miller was not included.
7 Much of the personal information contained within this text about Peter Miller comes from the recollections of the abstract painter Bill Richards, who knew the artist well and who, upon Peter Miller’s death, along with his wife Charlene, inherited the estate of her paintings.
8 Information relayed to the author in a telephone conversation with Joseph Rishel, Curator Emeritus, Philadelphia Museum of Art.