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In Search of Bayard Berndt

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David Berndt holds a portrait of his father.
Berndt says a painting by Bayard Berndt
that cost $3,000 a few years ago is now
worth $8,000.
Photograph by Pat Crowe II

 

 

David Berndt can’t stop thinking about his father. Bayard Taylor Berndt may have died in 1987, but he remains alive in the body of artwork he left behind. David Berndt’s fixation is with the paintings that have been missing for years. His self-appointed mission is to track them down. It’s a mission that frequently returns him to the past.

The story begins at the height of the Depression Era. Bayard Berndt, a 23-year-old Wilmington native and graduate of a two-year program at the Wilmington Academy of Art, had just won the school’s coveted European Travel Scholarship. The honor earned him a year abroad to do nothing but paint. By the time he returned home, in 1931, he was laden with a cache of watercolors, one for every day spent in Europe. Though the rest of his life was devoted to painting regional landscapes and imagined historic scenes, he never again had the luxury of being a full-time artist.

Instead, Bayard Berndt spent 10 more years at the Academy of Art—serving alternately as a secretary and a teacher—until World War II shut the school down. Following a stint at the Wilmington shipyards during the war, he became the owner and manager of Hardcastle’s, a framing and art supply shop on Shipley Street, in 1946. In the 1950s his portfolio of European watercolors was stolen from the shop. About 500 other paintings—both oils and watercolors—that he produced over a lifetime in the Wilmington area are  largely scattered.

Some have been accounted for, in private collections and local public institutions, but at least half have disappeared—into attics, resale shops or private homes across the country. David Berndt would like to find them. Heir to Hardcastle Gallery, now in Centreville, he uses the shop as his base of operation.

“I’ve been keeping an ear and eye open for 20 years, but I got more aggressive about 10 years ago,” David says. His almost single-minded determination to find his father’s lost art moved into high gear when he launched a website in 2002. Progress, he says, is slow.

Once in a while a Bayard Berndt painting will surface at a local auction. One called “Yellow Tulips” was found last year at Briggs Auction. “Brandywine Village” turned up at Pook and Pook auctioneers. Berndt tells of another painting taken to the gallery that had been damaged by fire. And David’s sister, Linda, walked in one day with a painting she had discovered at a local resale shop. She owns another that her brother covets, a colorful scene of the bustling King Street market in the 1940s. “I’d love to find more like that,” Berndt says, “historic scenes of the city with people, not just buildings.

“My father said that all the romance and color and atmosphere of Europe is here in Wilmington. He was very interested in American history, and particularly fascinated with the industrial history of Wilmington. He also loved Wilmington. He thought it was the greatest town that ever was.”

 
Fairville, oil on canvas

 

Economic necessity may have dictated Bayard Berndt’s working life, but it didn’t curb his true ambition. “The 1930s was a much more romantic time,” David says. “You could dream big dreams. My father had no money, but he knew he wanted to be an artist.”

Like other local artists of his generation, Bayard Berndt studied under Frank Schoonover, N.C. Wyeth and Gayle Hoskins—all of whom held court at the Wilmington Academy—yet many of the younger artists, not students of Schoonover’s famous school of illustration, painted local landscapes. They were known only in this area.

Most of the students “were self taught in terms of style,” says Steve Bruni, a former executive director of the Delaware Art Museum. “They were sort of the deans of local color landscape painting.” Bruni believes Bayard Berndt was part of this group, though he deviates somewhat from the norm.

According to David, his father’s teachers provided the motivation to develop an individual style. “At the time he went to school, you weren’t supposed to copy Mr. Schoonover or Mr. Wyeth. You were supposed to find your own voice,” David says. “That’s why his work is so very individual.”

Painter Anna B. McCoy makes a similar assessment of the work. Her father, painter John McCoy, along with other family members—including her uncle Andrew Wyeth and his sister Caroline—were frequent visitors to Hardcastle’s on Shipley Street, where they bought supplies and had their paintings framed.

“Bayard’s work was very sincere, not at all derivative,” says McCoy. “It was more like Caroline Wyeth’s, with the same honest, direct approach to painting. He was his own man. He painted what he felt and saw and loved.”

Though he was most prolific as a landscape and cityscape painter, Bayard Berndt’s oeuvre includes still lifes, imagined aerial scenes—even a couple of charming circus scenes. Yet he is best known for painting imagined historic scenes. Strong, clear color is a prominent feature in almost all his oil paintings.

Among the aerial scenes, the view of Henry Clay Village was reputedly one of the artist’s favorites. “He never went any further than an elevator in his life,” says David Berndt, “but he imagined Brandywine Village from a helicopter and Chesapeake City from a similar height.”

Karol Schmiegel, former director of the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover, believes “the charm and appeal of [Berndt’s] work is that people really enjoy seeing things they know. His work is not overly fussy. It’s even simplified. That minimal detail is what makes the paintings so pleasing. It gives the work a timeless quality.”

Schmiegel also believes some of the work conveys a certain modernism. “That simplification of design was manifested in his painting,” she says. “And a Christmas card he did shows one of his paintings abstracted into a graphic image. It sort of screams Art Deco.

“Bayard Berndt didn’t try to do social commentary, like Edward Hopper,” Schmiegel says. “His message was the beauty of the landscape, the appeal of a street scene. He also carried on the Pyle tradition of making historic scenes as accurate as possible.”

Schmiegel says that, though Berndt’s work represents what many regional artists were doing, “Putting a local scene in historic context was unusual. Berndt showed the landscape as it may have looked in the past.”

 


Rockland Paper Mills, oil on canvas

 

Berndt worked in the shop five days a week, giving himself Tuesdays off to paint. He might have developed his talent further, perhaps even expanded his market, Schmiegel thinks, if he hadn’t been obligated to feed his family.

David Berndt describes his father’s work as having a Thomas Hart Benton quality.

“He was one of Dad’s idols, but he also loved the Impressionists and was strongly influenced by the New Hope School,” David says. “I think he was trying to find a place to fit in. He wanted to paint on a mural scale, but after the war you couldn’t give a mural away.”

Perhaps Bayard Berndt’s most enduring influence was felt through his lifelong involvement in the art community. In the years that followed his tenure at the Wilmington Academy, he continued to offer advice to young artists who bought supplies at Hardcastle’s—provided they could get past his sometimes-gruff exterior. And if they couldn’t afford something he believed they needed, it often found its way in their bags. Berndt also worked on the fundraising committee to build the Delaware Art Center, now the Delaware Art Museum, on Kentmere Parkway in Wilmington. He helped launch the Brandywine Arts Festival and was part of the group that initiated a spring festival featuring the long-running Clothesline Fair on the steps of the City-County Building in Wilmington.

An exhibitor in the art museum’s annual Delaware Show for more than 30 years, Berndt won prizes that earned his work a place in the museum collection. According to associate curator Heather Coyle, the Delaware Art Museum owns three Bayard Berndt watercolors, one a gift from an anonymous donor.

Schmiegel believes strongly that Bayard Berndt’s work also belongs in the Biggs collection. “Berndt is one of the really good Delaware artists. It’s a gap that ought to be filled,” she says. “There are other artists besides Schoonover, Pyle and Wyeth that Delaware should know about, but considering how our state has forgotten so many of its artists, it’s not surprising that Bayard Berndt isn’t a household word.”

 As one who sold most of his work during his lifetime, Berndt might be called a successful artist, even considering that he also gave many of his paintings as wedding gifts or presents to friends of his young children. “I took my father’s work for granted when I was growing up,” says David Berndt. “Now I love it. And after being in this business for 30 years, I’ve seen it hold up well. ”

Which is to say he has seen the value climb.

“Not long ago you could have bought one of Dad’s paintings for $500. Today it would be at least $5,000,” says David. “And there’s a lot of Dad’s work people won’t part with.”

David can account for about a dozen private collectors, local and regional, who own one or more of his father’s paintings. Local institutions such as the Hotel du Pont and Wilmington Trust also own a few. A Wilmington law firm has six, and Philadelphia resident Norval Copeland owns at least 13.

“I believe the top price for a Bayard Berndt painting right now is about $15,000,” David says, “and I’ve sold one for $10,000.”

Since the advent of the website, Bayard Berndt’s work is ever so slowly coming out of the woodwork—or the attic.

“We had a man contact us several times about a painting he inherited,” David says. “He wanted to know the value, so we told him to send it to us. We waited and waited, then discovered it was on eBay. He wanted a lot of money, and it didn’t sell. Now it’s kind of disappeared.”

He tells of another painting that arrived from California. The work, stapled to stretchers, was unframed. Since David has broadened his search via the Internet, the outcome is not always encouraging. “Sometimes I dread seeing a piece come in because I fall in love with it, and then the seller wants an outrageous price.”

Not that he is expecting to buy all of his father’s missing paintings. In truth, he just wants to find them. Periodic exhibitions have helped spread the word.

 


Riverfront circa 1840, oil (painted from Market
Street at the Christina Riverfront in Wilmington)

 

The Delaware History Museum mounted a show called “Bayard Taylor Berndt’s Visions of Delaware” in 1996. The last exhibition of Berndt’s work at Hardcastle Gallery was in 2004, when 54 paintings were displayed. Several have been reproduced as prints that continue to sell well, especially the image of Buckley’s Tavern. Last month John Schoonover launched a solo exhibition of 25 of the artist’s paintings and watercolors in his refurbished Rodney Street Gallery. Entitled “Yesterday…Celebrating the Passage of Time in the Historic Brandywine and Delaware River Valleys,” the show featured both work for sale and paintings on loan.

“I’ve always admired Bayard Berndt’s work, and knowing he studied under my grandfather gives it more appeal,” says Schoonover. “I wanted something this fall that was very pertinent to my mission, to represent illustrators and Delaware artists from the late 19th to early 20th century.”

Bruni acknowledges the appeal of Berndt’s work to a younger generation. “It has a nostalgic importance,” he says. “His paintings document the area we live in when it was gentler, more open, more natural. He was unconsciously documenting a time that was going to be lost, and the work is part of the local archive.”

Bruni considers contemporary artist Paul Scarborough an heir to the Berndt style. “The Brandywine Valley doesn’t own that style, but it’s been ingrained here for 150 years.”

Sculptor Charles Allmond, who owns three Bayard Berndt paintings and counted the artist among his friends, was drawn to the straightforward, no-gimmicks execution. “He usually painted rather quickly and captured his subject with as little fanfare as possible,” Allmond says. “He was much freer at a younger age than the illustration artists of his day.”

For collector Norval Copeland, Berndt’s work is all about color and drama. “He paints water better than anyone I’ve ever seen, and I think he’s the best of the Delaware artists—by far,” Copeland says.

David Berndt continues to hope that many others have similar feelings and that his father’s work has been preserved in homes and public places as far away as the West Coast or as close as Wilmington. He keeps hoping as well that, one by one, the paintings and watercolors will find their way back home—like the one that turned up recently in a house under demolition in California. When the owner launched a Google search, he discovered the Hardcastle Gallery.

“Lately it’s been every other month or so that I get an email from someone who has one of Dad’s paintings,” David says. “Fifty percent of the time they want to sell, and I buy it, if I can. But the value has gone up so much that what was $3,000 a few years ago is now worth $8,000.”

If that escalation in value is frustrating on one level, it’s immensely gratifying on another.

 

 

 

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