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Etelka Greenfield (1887 – 1949)

Updated: Mar 27

Non Objective Design, c. 1940s, oil on canvas board, 16 x 12 inches, Exhibited at Greenfield’s solo memorial exhibition at the John Wanamaker Gallery in Philadelphia in October 4 to 14, 1949, #21 (listed in the brochure and labeled verso: “Title: Non Objective Design; Artist: Etelka J. Greenfield; Size: 12 x 16; Medium: Oil: Price: $350; Address: 10 South 18th Street, Philadelphia, Penn.”)


About the Painting

Reflecting on his pupil’s work, the prominent Philadelphia portrait painter, Lazar Raditz, commented, “Etelka Greenfield’s adaptability, her open-mindedness in style and technique w[ere] outstanding for any artist, but most especially for one of her years.” Much of Greenfield’s work reflected a form of precise academic realism akin to Luigi Lucioni, but in Non Objective Design we see a thoroughly modern painting which successfully combines elements of abstraction and surrealism with a bright palette reminiscent of the later works of fellow native Philadelphian Arthur Beecher Carles, Jr. Greenfield uses a variety of surface techniques to depict the abstract designs across the canvas, including thin layers of wash, sprinkled coarse sand in the pink area, and thick applications of impasto which are worked into vertical lines in the center white section, a grid structure in the yellow section in the lower left and a series of peaks and valleys in the upper right. The overall feeling of the canvas owes a debt to the artists of the Fifth Avenue Cubists and the American Abstract Artists Group who were working at the time Greenfield painted Non Objective Design. But, Greenfield isn’t a copyist. Her abstracted patterns have a dynamic movement from lower left to upper right, which break free from the formal staid structures of many pre-war abstractions. And, belying its title, Greenfield depicts recognizable figures and objects amid the abstract patterns. Greenfield’s art historical and pop culture “easter eggs” include a figure to the left whose face is obscured by a pipe (think - Magritte’s The Treachery of Images – Ceci n’est pas une pipe), a figure in the right middle playing a violin or cello (think – any number of cubist paintings by Picasso or Braque), and the horn of a gramophone (think – the famous tagline and logo “His Master’s Voice”). Combining these elements, we are left to wonder is Greenfield hearing the voices of the great French modernist masters?

About the Artist

Etelka Greenfield was a little-known, but critically acclaimed Philadelphia-based painter of the late 1930s and 1940s. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, as Etelka Joseph, Greenfield moved to New York City and then studied in France and Switzerland. In 1937, she married Albert M. Greenfield, a prominent Philadelphia real estate investor, department store developer, banker, businessman and philanthropist. Both Greenfields supported charitable causes in Philadelphia with Etelka associating with the Bureau of Colored Children, which provided services to children in the foster care system. Etelka was a linguist and poet before she began her career as a painter in the late 1930s at the age of fifty. At first, she worked alone, but then studied with Lazar Raditz, who painted many portraits of Rockefellers, DuPonts, and many other famous society figures. Greenfield painted privately for many years before she began to show her work in public. She was devoted to her craft and dedicated a portion of each day to working in her studio. During the short three years in which she publicly exhibited her work, Greenfield’s paintings were shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Woodmere Art Gallery (now the Woodmere Museum), the Toledo Museum of Art, the Contemporary Art Association of Philadelphia, and the Pyramid Club (Philadelphia). From her earliest entries in public exhibitions, she drew praise, including from C.H. Bonte, one of Philadelphia’s most important art critics of the time. Even as she fell gravely ill, Greenfield continued to paint from her hospital bed. Upon her death, a solo memorial exhibition of approximately sixty of her paintings, watercolors and pastels was held at the John Wanamaker Gallery in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that over 7000 people attended the ten-day exhibition, and it had been extended by a week, reflecting the unusually high interest in Greenfield’s work. In reviewing the show, Katherine Dunlap, an Inquirer columnist wrote, “the exhibition is remarkable in many ways; for its evidence of highly developed talent, its versatility; for its examples of varied techniques and variety of subjects and for its changes in style and in pace as she interpreted the many moods and manners she was willing to investigate.”

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