A New York artist paints the 20th century city

She may not have reached the same level of success as fellow social realist painters Robert Henri (with whom she exhibited her works at art shows) and William Merritt Chase (her teacher at the Arts Student League in the 1910s).

[“New York Street,” 1912]

But painter Theresa Bernstein did overshadow her male Ashcan school contemporaries in one way. Born in 1890 in Poland, Bernstein lived just shy of her 112th birthday—and that enabled her to paint scenes of city life in almost every decade of the 20th century.

[“In Central Park,” 1914]

A New Yorker since 1912, Bernstein spent much of her adult life living with her husband, painter William Meyerowitz, in a rent-stabilized West 74th Street studio near Central Park.

[“In the Elevated,” 1916]

Her early work reflects the people she saw going about their lives outside her window, as well as the events of the time, from European immigrants on the bow of a ship heading toward Ellis Island to Armistice Day celebrations to Suffrage meetings.

[“Brighton Beach” 1916]

Bernstein often depicted crowds too, particularly in rich, dark tones. Mothers and children were another popular theme, perhaps because Bernstein’s only child died at age 3 of pneumonia. (She reportedly doted on a niece, who grew up to be singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.)

Her Jewish identity figured into her art as well, with scenes inside New York’s synagogues in the 1910s and 1920s.

[“Baby Carriages Laundry Day,” 1923, Park Slope]

Navigating the art world as a woman proved to be challenging. “As a woman crossing the gender threshold at the beginning of the new century, Bernstein experienced the excitement of that moment but was not spared the indignity of discrimination,” states the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“Either paying a reluctant compliment or implying criticism, reviewers often described her work as having a “masculine” style.”

[“Waiting Room, Unemployment Office,” date unknown]

Her figurative style may have fallen out of favor as Abstract Expressionism took hold. But Bernstein never stopped painting, putting images of everything from postwar life to hippies in Central Park down on canvas.

Her work can be read as almost a list of milestones and movements in the 20th century—or how one woman experienced 112 years of history.

[“Saturday Morning Upper West Side,” 1940s]

Asked in a New York Times article from 1990 how she felt about being overlooked throughout her career, she replied:

“I never got frustrated, because I didn’t expect anything. I enjoyed painting the works I did. I didn’t do it for public acclaim.”

An extensive look at Bernstein’s life and work can be found here.

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12 Responses to “A New York artist paints the 20th century city”

  1. marygerdt Says:

    Beautiful art! And Woman artist biography.

  2. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:


    Above is a link to FIND A GRAVE for the artist.

    Sure would be nice to find some more info on this gifted woman to help fill in the blanks. Such a fruitful talent and so many of the basic details of her life have faded with time…

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, imagine all the changes that happened during the course of her life. She seemed super sharp into her 90s as well.

  3. Tom B Says:

    Thank you so much for this. I never knew of her and I like the paintings. The passing of time fades away some talented people. Keep up the good work!

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Tom B! I just discovered her myself.

  5. Clare Hopkins Says:

    Beautiful paintings – thanks for sharing xx


  6. Asif Ahsan Khan Says:

    Nice! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this. Cheers!

  7. Ruth-Ann Rosenthal Says:

    Wow!!! Another totally new and fantastic find from the superlative Ephemeral NY. I’m sharing this on my Facebook timeline. So many female artists that have lived in the shadows of their male counterparts. And Bernstein lived to be 112 and painted in every decade of the 20th century!!! Unbelievable!!

  8. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you!

  9. Robbye Bush Life Love Advocate Says:

    Breathtakingly beautiful intensity

  10. Roz Katz Says:

    I look forward to the 3 posts per week I receive from Ephemeral. It’s like opening a little treasure box, I was moved by both the work and the limited info about Theresa Bernstein. Another artist who expected no fame, who created art because she could.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about her! There are so many wonderful artists lost to the ages.

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