The Schwarz Gallery

Gregory Cerio

Gregory Cerio Art, Furniture & Decorative Arts

by Gregory Cerio

The Private Office of George William Childs at the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Philadelphia by George Bacon Wood Jr. (1832–1910), 1877. Oil on canvas, 27 by 38 inches. Private collection; all photographs courtesy of the Schwarz Gallery, Philadelphia.

Specializing in American and European paintings of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries and best known for its expertise in Philadelphia artists, the Schwarz Gallery on Chestnut Street is one of the city’s most esteemed art galleries. The success of the family-owned and family-run firm is all the more remarkable for the fact that its history has been so marked by contingency. Consider, for example, that not one of the members of the three generations of Schwarzes to operate the gallery actually planned to become a dealer. “My grandfather Frank Schwarz, who founded the company, had been studying to be a lawyer; and my dad was a pre-med student,” says Robert D. Schwarz Jr., who manages the gallery with his wife, Deepali Schwarz. “I graduated from college with a degree in computer science.”

What’s more, if not for the predations of the German U-boat fleet during World War II, the Schwarz Gallery—if it were a going concern at all—might still be doing business on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. In 1930 Frank S. Schwarz, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, decided to spend the summer between his second and third years of law school at the University of Pennsylvania selling antiques out of a rented farmhouse on a busy roadway to the New Jersey shore. He dealt in sundry objects collected by his father, and though his wife, Marie, would later describe the shop as a “glorified garage sale,” Frank Schwarz loved the work, and his business thrived. Within a few short years, he had opened a store in the prestigious Traymore Hotel—the “Taj Mahal of Atlantic City”—specializing in furniture, porcelain, and silver. Soon after war broke out, large parts of the resort city were taken over by the U.S. military for use as a training center. In May 1942 a nightly blackout was ordered—enemy submarine commanders could spot surface ships by their silhouettes against the bright backdrop of city lights. Trade dried up, and Schwarz made what he thought was a temporary move to the five-story town house that is the location of the gallery to this day.

Sleuth Slope by Nina F. Martino (1952–), c. 2005. Oil on Masonite, 16 by 24 inches. Schwarz Gallery.

His son Robert D. Schwarz Sr. would orient the gallery toward fine art. In the early 1960s business in American antiques was booming, thanks in large measure to Jacqueline Kennedy’s widely publicized redecoration of the White House. The lots of furniture and objects that Frank Schwarz purchased from estate sales often came with paintings, and through his dealings he had gathered a large trove of artworks that included Dutch Old Masters and a significant group of nineteenth-century American paintings and sculptures divested by the Library Company of Philadelphia. Though Frank Schwarz knew little about fine art, his son Robert was captivated by these pieces. After a summer spent studying art history in Vienna, he gave up medicine and joined the family business in 1964. “Dad made art his bailiwick,” Robert Schwarz Jr. says. “And he really helped foster the market for American paintings.” His timing was perfect, as historical and patriotic interest for the material among art collectors grew in the years leading up to the U.S. Bicentennial. Schwarz’s focus on Philadelphia artists drew particular notice. He produced numerous deeply researched catalogues—most notably a 1987 volume on the artistic Peale family, A Gallery Collects Peales—that have become standard reference works. “His work established us as an academic-minded gallery,” says his son. “Knowledge should be at the heart of collecting art.”

Fairmount Waterworks, the Dam, and Entrance to the Canal attributed to James Peale Jr. (1789–1876), c. 1823. Oil on canvas, 22 ¼ by 32 inches. Private collection.

Upon graduating from Villanova University, Schwarz Jr. put his own knowledge to work devising operating systems for online stock-trading firms. He left that work behind in 2002 to join the family company, taking charge when his father died, of cancer at only sixty-one, in 2004. If that duty was sad, to judge by his enthusiasm as he describes works of art in the gallery, the younger Schwarz is far happier than he would have been writing computer code. His astuteness and appreciation are clear as he discusses a lovely 1832 portrait of Abby Ann King Turner Van Pelt by Thomas Sully, as is his sense of humor: “Sully gave her an elegant long neck that couldn’t exist in nature but looks great in a painting.”

First floor of the Schwarz Gallery on Chestnut Street.

His keenness is shared by Deepali Schwarz, who met her husband some ten years ago while pursuing post-graduate studies in arts administration at the city’s Drexel University. “What we try to do is find interesting stories,” she says, and proceeds to tell one about Charles Peale Polk, a painter who, though well trained by his uncle Charles Willson Peale, shows a trace of folk-artist naiveté in his portraits. “He carefully captured every detail of a person’s features,” she says. “But I remember seeing one portrait he did of an older woman and thinking, ‘It’s beautiful—but did he have to paint her mustache?’”

Though Philadelphia-area artists have a special place at the gallery, the Schwarzes are ecumenical in their stylistic appreciation. Locally based artists whose work is on view range from the widely traveled German-born landscape artist Herman Herzog to Arthur Meltzer, a luminous scenic painter of the New Hope (Pennsylvania) School, to the contemporary artist Nina F. Martino, whose city and suburban streetscapes have a touch of Hopperesque anomie. One artwork comes with a surprising historical lagniappe: the purchaser of the portrait of Alice Anna Morris by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze—the Swabian-born Philadelphia transplant best known for his Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851)—will also receive the necklace and bracelet that the sitter is wearing.

Deepali Schwarz and Robert D. Schwarz Jr.

Far from being a stark white box, the Schwarz Gallery is a cozy, convivial place furnished with pieces that include Chippendale-style chairs, a long-case clock, and a silk damask-upholstered settee. “We want people to experience what it would be like to live with the art in their homes,” Deepali says. None of it is for sale, but odd remnants of the old antiques business do pop up. A randomly opened bureau drawer revealed a cache of tarnished silver hollowware; and in one corner on the second floor stands a strange, four-foot-tall piece of bent iron that looks like part of a giant paper clip. What is it? “A big fake is what it is,” Robert says. He explains that the piece was sold to his father. Purportedly it was a link in an enormous chain drawn across the Delaware River to block an incursion of the British fleet in the War of 1812. In reality it is either a purposemade counterfeit—or more likely a remnant of a random industrial mechanism billed as a section of the chain. Schwarz shrugs, saying: “But the thing is so damn heavy, none of us has ever wanted to move it.” In the best galleries, even the bogus is a treasure.