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 Leonard L. Nelson  (1912 - 1993)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania/New York/New Jersey      Known for: color field painting, printmaking, teaching

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An example of work by Leonard L. Nelson
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Leonard Nelson, leader of the Philadelphia School of Art, was born Leonard Louis Nelson in Camden, New Jersey on March 5, 1912 to Anna (nee Bryen) and Morris Nelson. Nelson’s father owned several local businesses and provided a comfortable lifestyle for his family, but tragedy struck in 1928 when both Nelson’s parents died in their early 40s (his mother from unexplained causes, his father from a heart attack).  Nelson was then 16 years old.  He and his two sisters lived on trust funds until the stock-market crash of 1929 left them completely destitute.

In the autumn of 1936, lacking both a portfolio and formal art instruction, Nelson won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts* in Philadelphia.  Nelson so impressed the school with his work that he was awarded the Cresson Traveling Fellowship* in 1939.

After six weeks of touring both Eastern and Western Europe, Nelson returned to Philadelphia for another year of study at the Academy, earning his certificate in 1939. He took classes at the Barnes Foundation* in Merion, Pennsylvania from 1939 to 1941 and became friendly with Dr. Barnes and the British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. 

In 1942, Nelson was drafted into the Army and became a Private in the Medical Detachment at Fort Eustis, Virginia. During Nelson’s time in the service, he designed murals and humorous drawings for the hospital to which he was assigned, as well as for the Works Progress Administration*.

After his Honorable Discharge from the Army on September 15, 1943, Nelson focused all his attention on his art, holding shows and participating in exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York City.  The influences of Native American art and the Native American-inspired murals of Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera can be seen in his work from this period.

By the mid 1940s, Nelson made two important contacts who would assure his ascendancy in the nascent New York School*: the art dealers Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons. He began to exhibit in the New York galleries, in particular Parsons’ gallery*, and his work reflected the Abstract Expressionist* style made famous by this school.  Nelson counted among his contemporaries at this time Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, and many others from the New York School.

The late 1940s and early 1950s took Nelson in a new direction.  He began to teach art, most notably at the Moore College of Art* in Philadelphia, where his Abstract Expressionist works metamorphosed into a new style that was all his own. This style was a combination of gestural Abstract Expressionism, Color Field*, and landscape art.  It would go on to become his signature style, but to his dismay, the New York art world disavowed it. 

Nelson was told that in order to remain a heavyweight in the New York scene, he would have to adhere to the Abstract Expressionist style that had brought him to prominence in the first place.  Feeling that New York was impeding the direction he was taking his work, Nelson immediately relocated to Philadelphia, where he would reside for the remainder of his life.  This quieter art scene allowed him to work unfettered and un-judged.  Nelson was aware that his relocation could isolate him into obscurity, yet he was willing to take the chance in order that his new style would thrive.

Nelson spent his time in the 1950s and 1960s teaching at Moore, traveling, painting, and exhibiting. It was during the 50s and 60s that he perfected his vision of landscape color field  painting that is the earliest representation of the Philadelphia School of Art. In 1963 he married Alma Neas, a former Moore student.

Although New York had rejected Nelson’s new style, his aesthetic began to influence Philadelphia painters such as Warren Rohrer, Murray Dessner, and Stephen Estock, all of whom incorporated Nelson’s tonal*, atmospheric, and perceptual qualities suggesting landscape – the hallmarks of the Philadelphia School of Art. 

Moore College of Art and select Philadelphia galleries regularly exhibited Nelson, with Moore hosting his retrospective in 1977.  In 1985 he and Alma moved to their permanent home in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, a Main Line town on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Nelson’s luminous* canvases of the 1970s and 1980s were described by art historian Sam Hunter in his 2001 text Leonard Nelson: A Life in Art, as “pathbreaking.”  Hunter believed that Nelson’s name should be mentioned on par with color field artists Noland, Olitski, and Frankenthaler, and he ranked Nelson as one of Philadelphia’s most important painters. 

Leonard Nelson died on November 23, 1993 but posthumously has become recognized for his originating the Philadelphia School of Art.

Submitted by Celeste Harmer

* For references for these terms and others, see AskART Glossary

Biography from Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio:
Sam Hunter, author, Professor Emeritus in art history at Princeton University and a leading critic and historian of modern and contemporary art introduces Leonard Nelson in his book Leonard Nelson: A Life In Art as "one of the least appreciated, though deserving, artists of indisputable quality in the legendary New York School".  Nelson was part of that first generation of American abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Willem DeKooning and Mark Rothko.  Leonard Nelson has been called a "bridge" between Modernism and Abstract Expressionism.  Nelson remained dedicated to this form of painting his entire life and never changed for other more popular forms of painting.  In the early 1950s Nelson became disenchanted with the New York art scene and left it for Philadelphia, beginning a teaching career that spanned more than forty years.

Born in Camden, New Jersey, Nelson applied for a scholarship at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, regardless of having no portfolio.  He was persuasive enough to be given one semester and subsequently was awarded an Academy fellowship to study painting.  Nelson went on to earn the Academy's prestigious Cresson Traveling Scholarship award in 1939.  He studied at PAFA from 1936 - 1940 with, among others, Henry McCarter and Daniel Garber, and then earned a teaching degree from the Philadelphia College of Art. Later Nelson earned a certificate from the Philadelphia Museum School.  The Barnes Foundation also enriched his educational experience where he furthered his studies for five years.  In 1951 Nelson accepted a teaching position at Moore College of where he taught until 1981 and remained professor emeritus until his death.

Leonard Nelson's art was always ahead of its time.  Several of his paintings and drawings from the late 1940s show an experimental style of colorfield painting.  Colorfield painting was a term for organic, sensuous and joyous abstract painting in the 1960s.  This is the direction that Nelson's later work of the 1970s, '80s and '90s would take.  His early "colorfield" paintings in the 1960s were more representational of nature, using abstracted flowers and gardens.  These works then evolved into a tight, highly textured reflection of nature and light in the 1970s.  In these, luminescence and heavy impasto, carefully applied layer upon layer over months, or even years, resulted in some of Nelson's most celebrated works.

Leonard Nelson was a dedicated teacher, painter, sculptor and print maker.  He taught at the Art Center in Haiti, The Museum of Modern Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Print Club, Moore College of Art and The Hussian School of Art. 

Nelson is represented in many private and public collections including The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Walker Art Museum, The Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Portland Museum of Art and The Art Museum of San Francisco.

Throughout his career Nelson had 65 one-man exhibitions in New York and Philadelphia.  The Peridot Gallery, Hugo Gallery, Betty Parson Gallery, Peggy Guggenheim and Mortimer Brandt Gallery showed his works.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

Leonard Nelson is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Abstract Expressionism

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