Robert Spencer (1879 - 1931)
One of the rarest and most important artists among the New Hope School, Robert Spencer was born in Harvard, Nebraska. Living an itinerant lifestyle as a youth, Spencer ended up in New York by his teenage years. After graduating high school, he attended classes at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1899. From 1903 to 1905, he continued his studies at the New York School of Art under William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri.
From 1906 through 1910, Spencer lived in towns in close proximity to the Delaware River, such as Frenchtown, New Jersey and Point Pleasant, Pennsylvania. He spent the summer of 1909 studying with Daniel Garber at his home in Lumberville. Soon after, Spencer moved to New Hope, where for the sake of conserving money, he roomed with fellow artist Charles Ramsey. The two impoverished artists rented the dilapidated old Huffnagle Mansion for two dollars a month. It was there that Spencer’s career would begin to take shape. His studio was set up in the massive ballroom just a stone’s throw away from the Heath and Maris mills. The mansion was originally built for Richard Heath in 1707, who at the time owned the Heath Grist Mill. It was later bought by William Maris in 1802, who owned the Maris Silk Mill. These two mills provided subject matter for some of Spencer’s most important paintings and elements from them continued to appear in his paintings for year after. Spencer became famous for his scenes of mills, tenements, and factories. One of his most praised depictions of working-class life is “Repairing the Bridge”, which was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1914.
In 1913, Spencer met Margaret Fulton, an artist and architect, and niece of well-known landscape painter, Birge Harrison. At the time, Margaret was studying with William Lathrop at his Phillips Mill home where Spencer often visited. A relationship developed and they married in 1914. For a while after, the Spencers moved across the river to nearby Lambertville, where they lived above the firehouse. In 1916, they bought a home in Rabbit Run, midway between New Hope and Phillips Mill where Spencer remained until his untimely death. In 1931, Robert Spencer, suffering from bouts of depression and an unhealthy marriage, took his own life.
Spencer exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad, garnering numerous prizes, including the Hallgarten Prize, the Inness Award, and the Gold Medal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
His work is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the James A. Michener Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian Institute, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Academy of Design, the Reading Public Museum, the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the National Arts Club, the Delaware Art Museum, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., among others.
- “New Hope for American Art” by James Alterman