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Home | Articles | Dealer Dynasties: The Schwarz Gallery

by Laura Beach

William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916), Windswept Sands, Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches. Collection of Art Institute Chicago. Courtesy of Schwarz Gallery.
No art dealer is better known for historic Philadelphia painting than the Schwarz Gallery, which has gracefully inhabited a five-story townhouse a block from the city's famed Rittenhouse Square since 1942.

This family firm has also been a force in the field of American decorative arts, having sold silver to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, furniture to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the papers of the Philadelphia Richardson dynasty of silversmiths to Winterthur.

For its dual reputation the gallery is indebted to its founder, Frank S. Schwarz, who died in 1985 at age 78, and his son, current president Robert D. Schwarz.

Frank S. Schwarz
Like his father, who abandoned law school to open an antiques shop in a New Jersey farmhouse in 1930, Robert Schwarz cut short a medical career to revitalize the market for what had for decades been considered a moribund specialty, pre-modern American painting.

"The field was just beginning to grow," says Mr. Schwarz, who was awakened to the beauty of historic art and architecture, which he studied in Vienna and at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, before joining the family business in 1964.

Robert D. Schwarz, Sr., and Robert D. Schwarz, Jr.
Over the years, the Schwarz Gallery has handled works by such talents as William Merritt Chase (the firm sold a large landscape by the artist to the Art Institute of Chicago), Thomas Eakins, and N. C. Wyeth.

"I love the early stuff the most," Mr. Schwarz says. He has a particular penchant for pictures by Philadelphia's first family of painters, the Peales. At Eldred's in 1986, bidding on behalf of the late Michigan collector Stanley Sax, Schwarz paid a record $451,000 for patriarch Charles Willson Peale's portrait of eighteenth-century Philadelphia scientist David Rittenhouse. A Gallery Collects Peales, a groundbreaking exhibition and catalogue on the artistic family, followed at the gallery in 1987.

"Robert has unusual integrity, both personally and professionally," notes Dr. Lance Humphries, director of the Peale Paintings Project at the Maryland Historical Society and author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on Pennsylvania impressionist painter Daniel Garber, another Schwarz interest.

Marie Schwarz
Robert's father, Frank, enjoyed similar rapport with his colleagues. Located next door to Freeman's auction house on Chestnut Street, the Philadelphia Antique Shop, as the Schwarz Gallery was known until the late 1960s, did business with leading New York and New England dealers such as Joe Kindig, Jr., David Stockwell, and Israel Sack, and silver specialists Robert Ensko and Eric Shrubsole. Schwarz was also a source for prominent local dealers, among them Robert Carlen and Philip Bradley.

"At the time, seventy-five percent of our business was wholesale," explains Robert Schwarz, who developed the company's retail business after he took the reigns in the early 1970s. Through his initiative, the Schwarz Gallery also began publishing thoroughly researched, illustrated catalogues. Since 1972 the gallery has published seventy-four catalogues.

John White Alexander (American, 1856–1915), Miss Dorothy Roosevelt (Mrs. Langdon Geer), 1901–1902. Oil on canvas, 60 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Schwarz Gallery.

Fifty Years on Chestnut Street, a history of the firm published in 1993, included such inventory highlights as a circa 1700 silver salver by Jacobus Vanderspiegel of New York, one of only three known, and eight canvases by Thomas Birch. One, a view of Sedgeley Park, first exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1819, was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1993.

Their emphasis on local art history dates to 1976, when the Schwarz Gallery produced its first Philadelphia Collection catalogue. The series, featuring nineteenth-century American and European painting of Philadelphia origin or provenance, now numbers sixty volumes. Another popular reference on the area's artistic traditions is 150 Years of Philadelphia Still-Life Painting, published by the gallery in 1997.

"Our catalogues are a big source of our success. Shows, which we didn't really do before 1980, are also important," says Robert, whose gallery is a distinctive presence at the Winter Antiques Show in New York, the Philadelphia Antiques Show, and USArtists, the annual October fine arts expo in Philadelphia.

Raphaelle Peale (American, 1774–1825), Cutlet and Vegetables, 1816. Collection of Timkin Museum of Art, San Diego, CA.
Visitors are graciously received at these events by Marie Schwarz, Robert's mother, an elegant silver-haired woman, who met Frank Schwarz on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, where he had a shop in the 1930s. The couple married in 1940.

"She has developed some fabulous clients," Schwarz says of his mother, who joined the firm in 1961, after Robert and his two siblings were grown.

The Schwarz staff, which numbers seven, has recently expanded to include Robert D. Schwarz, Jr., 28, the owner's oldest son. Like his father and grandfather, the young dealer trained in another field, computer science, before he answered the art market's siren call.

S. S. David (possibly De Scott Evans, American, 1847–1898), Cat in a Crate. Oil on canvas, 10 x 12 x 8-1/2 inches. Signed lower right S.S. David. Private collection. Courtesy of Schwarz Gallery.

The Schwarz Gallery has come a long way since the days when an Indian trade figure was its mascot. "We handle much better paintings and fewer of them, and we now deal in a very sophisticated market," says Robert Schwarz, Sr. No doubt some of the market's maturity can be attributed to the Schwarz Gallery's thoughtful stewardship and ongoing commitment to Philadelphia art.

Schwarz Gallery is located at 1806 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. Tel. 215.563.4887.

Laura Beach is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Antiques and the Arts Weekly and Country Home.

Dealer Dynasties is a semi-regular feature that introduces multi-generational art and antiques business owners.

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