Jefferson Place Gallery: Helene McKinsey Herzbrun and Hilda Thorpe

In one of our permanent collection galleries, Curator Renee Maurer has selected works by artists who were associated with Jefferson Place Gallery (1957–1974), a small cooperative gallery dedicated to promoting and exhibiting the work of DC-based artists. When it opened at 1216 Connecticut Avenue, just south of Dupont Circle, it was one of the few commercial art spaces that focused on the local arts community. Its pioneering exhibitions explored new means of painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, and conceptual art. It was founded by American University art faculty who had trained at the Phillips Gallery Art School (1931–1950), including Robert Gates and Ben Summerford, together with Helene McKinsey Herzbrun and Alice Denney, the inaugural director.

In its 18-year history, Jefferson Place Gallery presented nearly 190 shows that supported more than 100 DC-area artists, including Washington Color School painters like Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, and Howard Mehring, as well as Willem de Looper, and William Christenberry. Duncan and Marjorie Phillips were frequent visitors to the gallery and acquired the paintings by Noland and Herzbrun on view.

Helene McKinsey Herzbrun, Abstraction, c. 1958, Oil on canvas 34 1/8 x 28 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1959 (?)

In 1950, Helene McKinsey Herzbrun pursued an MFA in painting at American University, where she studied with both Jack Tworkov and Robert Gates. She then managed the Watkins Art Gallery at AU and joined the art department faculty. With the opening of Jefferson Place, Herzbrun and her colleagues developed a creative community that encouraged the display of contemporary art in the nation’s capital. In a letter to Tworkov from October 1, 1957, Herzbrun described how finding a space for Jefferson Place on Connecticut Avenue was like “a dream come true . . . the group is strong enough to make a real statement.” Herzbrun had seven one-person shows at Jefferson Place between 1958 and 1974. Duncan and Marjorie Phillips purchased this work, formerly tilted Young Pine, from the gallery in 1959 for $125.

Hilda Thorpe, Horizon Blue, Divide, 1975, Oil pastel on paper, 29 x 21 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1975

Hilda Thorpe’s art was influenced by the gestural paintings of her professors at American University, including Gates and Tworkov. In 1959, Thorpe was awarded a capstone exhibition at AU’s Watkins Gallery: a two-person show shared with Alma Thomas; the next academic year, Thorpe become the director of Watkins Gallery. Thorpe was encouraged by her mentors to exhibit at Jefferson Place, and her emergence there coincided with the beginnings of the Washington Color School and the vivid circle and striped paintings by Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis. Thorpe’s exposure to all-over painted color fields led to her exploration of expressive pastels, some of which were on view in Thorpe’s one-person show at The Phillips Collection in 1975.

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