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 Julius Thiengen Bloch  (1888 - 1966)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania / Germany      Known for: figure, portrait and landscape painting, prints

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Ad Code: 3
Julius Thiengen Bloch
from Auction House Records.
The Box Party
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Julius Block, one of the prominent Jewish artists of Philadelphia, was a social realist painter whose subjects focused on the working classes.  His admiration for Thomas Eakins, also a social realist, likely contributed to his interest in these subjects.  For many years, he was a teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy, and his message to students was that you need to know life in order to paint life.

He began his career by painting floral still-lives, but seeing Depression-era social conditions changed his focus to express his sympathy for persons who were "down and out."

One of the first American artists to paint poverty-stricken black Americans, he tried to make sure that his subjects retained their dignity.  In doing this, he painted many of the poor blacks with the formality of high-dollar, commissioned portraits.  Not everyone was accepting of this presentation.  In 1934, he was asked to submit a painting to a Center City department store for National Art Week.  His entry was a portrait of Alonzo Jennings, a black man.  "Store officials said it was one of the finest paintings they had seen in years, but that the store 'could not exhibit a portrait of a Negro in its windows.' They asked Bloch if he had any pictures of whites. He said he did, but they were not available." (Freeman)

Bloch was born in Kehl, Germany in 1888 and emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1893 when he was age five.  They settled in North Philadelphia, and had little money, but his mother, seeing his art talent, encouraged him to follow that path.  She seems to have been the dominant influence in his life, and he made many portraits of her.

He attended Central High School, the School of the Pennsylvania Museum and Industrial Art from 1905-06 through 1908 (now The University of the Arts College of Art and Design), and then the Pennsylvania Academy where Thomas Anshutz had replaced Eakins as instructor in the life class.  Bloch benefitted from the fact that Anshutz, like his earlier instructor Eakins, emphasized drawing and the human figure.  After the Academy, Bloch attended the school at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia.

He served in the Army during World War I and never forgot the horrors, especially his experiences at Verdun.

Like so many of his peers, Block became involved in left-wing politics, and this, combined with his own lack of money, inspired much of his interest in poor people. He became one of the first artists in the Public Works of Art Project and his painting, "Young Worker," ca. 1934, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was touted by Eleanor Roosevelt, then the First Lady.

He worked regularly at his studio at 10 South 18th Street from early in the morning until around 4:00 in the afternoon.  He was never successful at earning much money from his artwork, but by the end of the 1930s, Bloch was supported by two sisters, Ellen Winsor and Rebecca Winsor Evans.  They became his patrons and built him a home and studio in the countryside and gave him regular financial support.  For the first time, he was financially comfortable, but his subjects remained focused on the underprivileged.  He also earned money from teaching and from other patrons in Philadelphia society, which allowed him to spend summers in Woodstock, New York and to travel in Europe. Ironically "with the support of the rich, he portrayed the poor." (Freeman)

In the early 1950s, on a trip to Europe he became so fascinated by the colorful Byzantine mosaics that he changed his style to colorful, happier more abstract depictions.  He never explained the reason for his change, but this more lighthearted expression was a counter to his life-long mental depression, a family trait.  However, feelings of happiness were crushed when on a trip to Venice in 1962, he picked up his mail at the American Express office and learned that the Pennsylvania Academy no longer wanted his teaching services.  It is said that his forced retirement from there at age 74 crushed his spirit and left him even more financially strapped.

In 1966, he died of a massive hemorrhage. He left his artwork to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Collections: Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania; Fleisher Art Memorial, Philadelphia; LaSalle College Art Museum, Philadelphia; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Skillman Library, Easton, Pennsylvania; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; and the William Penn Memorial Museum, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Freeman's auction catalog, The Bernstein Collection of Remenick & Block, 2/22/2004.
Additional information courtesy of Sara MacDonald, Public Services Librarian, The University of the Arts

Biography from Philadelphia Museum of Art:
Exhibition: "Julius Bloch: Portrait of the Artist"
March 20, 1983 - May 1, 1983

Julius Bloch (1888-1966) had a natural empathy for working people, whom he captured in moving portraits. He approached the subject of a stevedore, a prisoner, a factory worker, or a dispossessed farmer with the dignity and formality usually reserved for commissioned portraits. The financial hardships of Bloch's own family--German Jews who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1893--made him attentive to the emotional burdens of the Depression, its crushing effect on the morale of the average person.

Bloch lived with his family on Uber Street in North Philadelphia for most of his life. He trained at the Pennsylvania Museum and School and later at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he was greatly influenced by the legacy of Thomas Eakins.

Though the onset of the Depression seemed to Bloch and his contemporaries to signal the death of American culture, the 1930s would prove to be a stimulating, generative period in American art. By the end of the decade, Julius Bloch would be transformed from an unknown Philadelphia painter to a social realist with a national reputation.

Bloch's compassionate identification with the suffering of innocent people naturally drew him to the Black community, which was faced with racial discrimination as well as economic privations. Powerful images of lynching in his work of the 1930s were followed by sympathetic portraits of Black community leaders and artists such as Horace Pippin.

Approximately forty paintings, drawings, and prints survey the range of the artist's career from 1912 to the early 1950s. Works owned by this Museum are supplemented by loans from other institutions and private collections, most notably that of Benjamin D. Bernstein, whose friendship for Bloch and his family has ensured the preservation of his work and archives. A special issue of the Museum Bulletin written by Patricia Likos accompanies the exhibition, which is supported in part by a grant from The Pew Memorial Trust.

Patricia Likos
Marge Kline

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