History's People: Carles, Steichen, and the PAFA Country School in Chester Springs

seperator image
Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the
Release Date: 
July 24, 2012

The past is full of mysteries.  There is one that's been stuck in the back of my mind for years.

It is the story of a series of photographs. The images include the artists Arthur and Sara Carles and they were shot at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Country School in Chester Springs, Chester County. Circumstantial evidence points to the possibility that the photographer may have been the famed modernist Edward Steichen.  Few, if any, know about this story, until now.

This story requires a bit of context. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), the nation's oldest art school, opened its  "Country School" in Chester Springs in 1917. The goal was to "afford fine art instruction in the open air, with all the beautiful surroundings of nature herself, rather than within the walls of a classroom." 

Arthur Carles was one of the many PAFA instructors that taught at the school. Carles, a Philadelphia native who attended the Academy between 1900 and 1907, began his teaching career at PAFA and its Country School in 1917. Although his early education had emphasized traditional styles and the techniques of the French Impressionists (e.g. Claude Monet), by the time he arrived in Chester Springs he had moved away from traditional painting towards more abstract modernist tendencies.  

Carles was part of the famous 1913 New York Armory show, which featured the work of modernist artists who rejected traditional styles. Although he returned to the Academy in 1917 to teach and was very popular with students, he was dismissed in 1925 for, as Carles biographer Barbara Wolanin states, "uninhibited behavior and flaunting of convention."  

Arthur Carles and Edward Steichen were very close friends.  Their relationship was forged through many years in France together with other trend-setting American artists. Most people know of Steichen for his work as an innovative photographer and his association with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Steichen, who was also an accomplished painter, helped elevate photography to a new echelon of respect as an art form.

Sara Carles, Arthur's younger sister, also attended PAFA and the Country School late in the 1910s. An accomplished artist in her own right, she received the Academy's prestigious Cresson Travel Scholarship   and went to France in 1920. Her work was also accepted into PAFA’s annual show that year.

The photographs in question came to light while I was working as Executive Director at Historic Yellow Springs (HYS) in Chester Springs. In 2008, Kate Johns, the granddaughter of Sara Carles (Johns) contacted us with a question: Did we know where these mysterious photographs were taken? Sandy Momyer, Moore Archivist at HYS, immediately recognized the various locations as the springhouses on the property. 

These three photographs all share a similar style, with ghostly figures enhanced by superimposition. One shows a specter-like Arthur Carles in the Diamond Spring House with a triangle of light beaming on him and silhouettes of two women hovering over his head. Another, taken in the Jenny Lind Springhouse, focuses on Sara Carles with the silhouetted women in the foreground, one of whom is fellow student Jean Chambers.  A third image shows the same triangle of light beaming down on two women, one of whom is Jean Chambers, in the Crystal Diamond Spring House.   

The style, timing, and context of the photographs posed an interesting possibility - could these have been taken by Steichen?  The ethereal style resembles those of other Steichen photographs and as established, Edward Steichen and Arthur Carles were very close friends.

Other factors point to the possibility. The timing of Sara Carles's attendance at the school (1916-1921) corresponds with Steichen's involvement with the school (1921), while Arthur Carles was an instructor at PAFA (1917-1925).

Carles organized three significant modern art shows at PAFA between 1920 and 1923. The second of these, entitled "Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings Showing Later Tendencies in Art" in 1921, included two paintings by Steichen along with works by Arthur Carles, Sara Carles and others like Man Ray and Georgia O'Keefe.  In fact, as Kate Johns points out today, Steichen and Arthur Carles were so close that the Philadelphia native lived in Steichen's French home for six months later that year.

Because everything about the images point to the possibility that Steichen took the photographs, what do the experts think?

Joel Smith, Curator of Photography at the Princeton University Art Museum, authored Edward Steichen: The Early Years. Upon viewing the photographs, he commented that "They are attractive and witty snapshots and in that sense would not be inconsistent with Steichen’s handiwork (he was a creative, convivial, and active snapshooter)."  But the uncertainty continues. As Smith stated, "I can’t say anything about them strikes me as definitively or (mathematically speaking) probably by him."  

Barbara Wolanin, author of Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952): Painting with Color and Curator of the  U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., believes that they could have been taken by Sara or Arthur Carles himself.

What we do know, regardless of who took the photographs, is that they allude to a time and place where artistic creativity ruled - the PAFA Country School.  Room, board, and tuition in 1917 cost $7.50 to $15 per week, depending on the type of accommodations. The students were expected to be, according to the school's brochure, "self governing," following "the principles of honor without specific rules."  By 1918, there were 168 students at the school, occupying buildings that were the site of a former spa resort and Revolutionary War hospital in the village of Yellow Springs, later known as Chester Springs.

Carles was one of many notable art instructors.  Painters like Daniel Garber, Albert Van Nesse Greene, and Mildred Miller took full advantage of the natural beauty that surrounded them. Albert Laessle, sculptor of the iconic goat Billy in Rittenhouse Square, used a converted barn as his studio. N.C. Wyeth even lectured at the facility and provided criticisms of student works.

Between 1916 and its closing in 1952, the school was known for many innovations. Winter landscape painting, the painting of nudes outdoors (something difficult to achieve at PAFA's North Broad Street facility), and the use of live animal models from the local farms were all new concepts pioneered at the facility.

The students enjoyed an idyllic lifestyle at the school. They enjoyed tennis and frolicked in the spring-fed pool. Students picnicked, danced, ate communally, and put on impromptu plays.

As for the photographs of Arthur and Sara Carles, we may never know for sure who took them. But they provide a valuable window into the world of the PAFA Country School and its impact.

It is a place that you can visit now to experience for yourself.  At Historic Yellow Springs the myriad stories of the school are alive in the buildings and grounds that are open to the public year round. For more information about Historic Yellow Springs visit www.yellowsprings.org or call 1-877-442-2476 #107 for Town Tours information and reservations.

A special thanks goes to CCHS intern David Naber for his assistance researching this article.

Caption:  Arthur Carles in the Crystal Diamond Spring House at the PAFA Country School, ca. 1919. Photo courtesy of the Johns Family Collection.