The Red Bridge, Fred Wagner, Sewell EBiggs Museum of American Art

Fred Wagner, The Red Bridge

It’s always such a cool feeling to see a Fred Wagner painting in a regional museum like the Sewell E. Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover, Delaware. It’s weird, it’s like he’s a pal to me. He hung out on Camac Street in Philly at the Philadelphia Sketch Club, studied at and later taught anatomy at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, hung out with Thomas Eakins, hung out at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and he summered at the Jersey shore. Yo! Fred! How you doin’ ?

The Red Bridge is, according to 150 years of Philadelphia painters and paintings: Selections from the Sewell C. Biggs Museum of American Art, the South Street Bridge! My hood! Fred Wagner titled the painting after an art show held at the Academy (PAFA) in 1940 but started the large canvas in 1910. The original bridge was built in the 1870s and rebuilt in 1923, it’s not known why it took so long for Wagner to finish the painting.

I can picture him on the banks of the Schuylkill River, a plein air painter capturing the built landscape on a big canvas on his French easel, then trekking back to the studio with the gear on his back like the Barbizon painters in the French forest instead a détournement of South Philly. If he were alive today we’d be friends on FaceBook, at least.

Like many of America’s great painters, Fred was an illustrator, a big business in Philadelphia, before photography disrupted the press, which explains the symbols and semiotics of his work; a strong narrative with appealing design that spreads memes through slightly strange structural color choices, intentional distortions, and bouncy contrasts. The moody soft greens over burnt sienna of The Red Bridge, is economic and expressive, the charcoal-ish icy deep blues contrast against shivering grays and off white explaining the atmospherics in complete sentences written in line, light, color, and space.

There is something in Wagner’s color language and composition structures that feels eloquently studied, information rich, a dialog with shapes that are descriptive, narrating a particular time and place, elements that are really easy to read, intellectually stealthy in his palette, and now, a wise voice from the past that speaks loudly in modern time, the artists far distant future.

The balance of deliberate narrative with alluring color chords, arresting structural color, and murky atmospheric light, with yellow haze of the early Industrial age, is expressed in the immediacy of oil paint on canvas. I’ve realized that his visual vocabulary is so eloquent and clear to me because he was describing the uniqueness of the visual language of the Philadelphia landscape.

Fred Wagner painted all his life, and although only making a modest living as an artist, his work was entered and accepted into some of the most prestigious art exhibitions of the time. He won many awards for his work and his paintings were (or are) in numerous museums including the Philadelphia Museum of ArtReading MuseumWoodmere Art MuseumJames A. Michener Art MuseumSt Louis Art MuseumSewell E. Biggs Museum of American ArtFarnsworth Art Museum and Penn State University Museum.[11] – Wikipedia

The Philadelphia Sketch Club, established 1860, is still going strong, I go there almost every week to draw models in the studio. Fred Wagner is listed on the historical marker in front of the club, the oldest artist run art studio and gallery in America, as an important American artist.

Seeing his work in Dover at the Biggs was a real mood boost, like a deep conversation about art with a reliable old friend and mentor. The early industrial landscape depicted in the painting is now an intellectual hub of hospitals and universities, with space age modern architecture on the West bank, and a people friendly Schuylkill River Trail that goes all the way to Valley Forge by bike, and some of the most desirable living in the city, where Fred Wagner composed his painting, The Red Bridge, on the east side on the river.

The influences of Fred Wagner are still strong at PAFA, painting is core. At the Philadelphia Sketch Club, the 11th Annual Phillustration exhibited contemporary illustrations from a still vibrant and relevant artist community of illustrators in Philly. If you see Fred at a Philadelphia regional museum say, “Yo!”

Williams A. Gee, Grays Ferry Bridge over Schuylkill River / Newkirk Viaduct, 8/29/1932
DOR Archives, City of Philadelphia

Thanks for writing about my great grand-uncle Fred Wagner. As you know, my sister Cyndy Drue and I authored a book about Fred that your readers can order from xLibris called Fred Wagner, An American Painter, 1860-1940.”

Susan Smith

Read more about Fred Wagner, DoN‘s review of Impressionism to Modernism: The Lenfest Collection of American Art, Michener Art Museum on DoNArTNeWs

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DoNArTNeWs celebrating eleven years reporting on Philadelphia art and artists.

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