Sullivan Goss
AN AMERICAN GALLERY
Celebrating 27 Years of 19th, 20th and 21st Century American Art
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ABRAM TROMKA

(1896-1954)

American Modernist Painter, Printmaker & Illustrator

By Kimberley Church

Abram Tromka emigrated from Poland to the United States as a young child and spent his life as a successful artist in the vibrant New York art scene throughout the first half of the twentieth century. He focused particularly on life in urban America, creating descriptive images of the people and places that form the American experience.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Abram Tromka was born May 1, 1896 in Poland. At the age of seven he immigrated with his family to the United States, settling in New York City. It was on the boat coming to New York where Tromka first became interested in art. Fascinated by a woman who was painting, he decided that he wanted to become an artist. Upon arrival at immigration headquarters, Tromka’s family adopted the surname “Phillips,” which he kept until 1930. Hence the artist’s early works bear the signature — ‘A. Phillips.’

Having a rough childhood, Tromka left home at 15 and spent the remainder of his teenage years living at the Henry Street Settlement. Lilian D. Wald, founder and head of the settlement, was so impressed by young Tromka’s talent for art that the settlement began offering art classes. In 1915, she used his drawings and etchings to illustrate her book, The House on Henry Street. That same year, Tromka began his schooling at the Ferrer School, where he studied under Ashcan artists Robert Henri (1865-1929) and George Bellows (1882-1925) until 1922. Tromka was very impressed by the Ashcan style, and Henri and Bellows especially influenced his artistic development.

In 1927, Tromka befriended the curator of painting at the Brooklyn Museum, Herbert Tschudy who organized Tromka’s first solo exhibition at the museum in 1932. As a resident of Brooklyn, Tromka contributed to the New York arts throughout the rest of his artistic career, participating in many shows and exhibitions in galleries and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tromka’s work was most frequently shown at the ACA Gallery in New York City beginning in 1933. Following the success of his first Brooklyn Museum exhibition, his art was also shown throughout the country, and a traveling exhibition of serigraphs including his work was shown in the U.S.S.R.

As a member of the New York branch of the American Artists Congress, Tromka participated in membership exhibitions and served on the exhibition committee. He also participated in the Federal Art Project throughout its entire duration from 1935 to 1943. Rather than joining out of necessity, Tromka was invited to the WPA program to offer prestige to the Depression-era program. The industrial subject matter and style of his art during the Art Project continued to resonate with that of Henri’s and Bellows’ realist approach.

In 1946 and again in 1952, the Brooklyn Museum awarded Tromka for his merits in the visual arts. He continued working as an artist in New York City until his death in June of 1954.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

Tromka spent his earliest years sketching the people and places surrounding him. As a Polish immigrant who arrived in New York City at a young age, Tromka grew up within a vibrant and dynamic community. His depictions of daily life in the city served as the perfect imagery for Lilian D. Wald’s book House on Henry Street (1915) which described childhood in early 20th-century New York City. Tromka’s candid approach to life in urban America never waned as he matured and began working in a wide array of media including oil, gouache, and watercolor.

Tromka’s artistic style developed fully under the instruction of Robert Henri and George Bellows during his years as a student at the Ferrer School. Henri and Bellows recognized his artistic talent and remained close with Tromka throughout his early years as an artist. Tromka’s broad, sweeping brushstrokes depicting urban subject matter reminisce the realist style of the Ashcan movement of which both Henri and Bellows were involved.

Many artists involved with the Ashcan movement as well as those such as Tromka who inherited the Ashcan style spent their summers painting coastal scenes in Monhegan, Maine. Following the lead of Henri, they traveled to this area, rich in American history and natural beauty, to depict the ephemeral power and dynamism unique to the American landscape. Tromka’s oil painting Monhegan, named after the town, shows not only the power of the American landscape itself but also suggests its ever-evolving relationship to mankind. A sailboat, navigating the rough waters, is seemingly trapped between a row of houses precariously placed along the cliffs and the surrounding mountains. Typical of Tromka’s style, the painting is formed upon diagonal lines to form a tilted composition. His bold, colorful brushstrokes represent the dynamic and unique beauty of the coastal town and also suggest the tumultuous variation of the American experience.

Tromka maintained artistic autonomy throughout his lifetime rather than simply adopting the style of his teachers. His images evoke a sense of fascination not only with the scenes and people he painted but also with the artistic process itself. His bending, tilted compositions shape a world of abstract beauty, while bold colors and strong lines reveal rather than hide the work involved in producing a work of art.

Tromka’s unique, bold style gained him his first solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum during the summer of 1932. Its success led to many subsequent showings of his work during the 1930’s and 1940’s including a 1938 exhibition of his silkscreen prints in the U.S.S.R. In 1935 he was invited to participate in the WPA Federal Art Project at its inception. Rather than joining the program out of financial necessity, Tromka was invited to lend his artistic prestige. According to Tromka’s wife Ann, the eight years he spent as a WPA artist were the happiest creative years of his life.

What makes Abram Tromka significant to American art history is his lifelong dedication to the human experience –especially that of the working class. His scenes of urban and rural life, almost surreal for the figural distortions they contain, remind the viewer of the social experience that shaped American life during the 1930’s and 1940’s. In a 1956 article of the New York Times, a reviewer describes Tromka as a painter who was “profoundly affected by his visual impressions,” recording “everything his eye remarked…with honesty and passion” (NYT). In his oil painting Old Kentucky (1938), Tromka depicts a farmer tending to her livestock, a seemingly mundane task, with the same vigor and dynamism used to create the lively seascape in Monhegan. Her quaint farmhouse sits within a landscape of bold colors and movement that infuses the painting with a sense of excitement. Typical of Tromka’s work, Old Kentucky represents a fascination with the everyday life of the working class –what truly shapes the foundation of the American experience.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1896 Born on May 1 in Poland
  • 1907 Emigrates to the U.S with this family and adopts the American name “Phillips”
  • 1911 Leaves his family and moves into the Henry Street Settlement
  • 1912 Learns to do etching from Nora Hamilton, art teacher at the Henry Street Settlement
  • 1915 Illustrates Lillian D. Wald’s book The House on Henry Street
  • 1915-22 Studies at the Ferrer School under Robert Henri and George Bellows
  • 1923 Moves into a studio at 92 Fourth Avenue N.Y.C.
  • 1927 Meets Herbert Tschudy, curator of painting at the Brooklyn Museum
  • 1930 Changes his surname from Phillips back to Tromka
  • 1932 First solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum
  • 1935-43 Participates in the WPA Federal Art Project
  • 1938, 1939 Exhibits with the American Artists Congress
  • 1943 Exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • 1946, 1952 Award, Brooklyn Museum
  • 1948 Award, Butler Art Institute
  • 1948 Award, Long Island Arts Festival
  • 1954 Died at the age of 58 in New York City
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Biro Bidjan Museum, USSR
  • Boston Public Library, MA
  • Brandeis University, MA
  • Brooklyn Museum, NY
  • Butler Art Institute, Youngstown, OH
  • Carnegie Institute
  • City Art Museum of St. Louis, MO
  • Corcoran Museum, Washington D.C.
  • Federal Arts Project, WPA
  • Iowa State College, IA
  • Library of Congress
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • Montclair Art Museum, NJ
  • Newark Public Library, NJ
  • Norfolk Museum, VA
  • Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C.
  • Syracuse University Museum, NY
  • Tel Aviv and Ein Harod Museums, Israel
  • University of Mass., Amherst, MA
  • U.S. State Department, Washington D.C.
  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, VA
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1932 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
  • 1932 Brooklyn Museum (solo)
  • 1933, 1935, 1937, 1942, 1950 Brooklyn Museum
  • 1933, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1941, 1943, 1945-46, 1948, 1950, 1952, 1954-1956, 1961 ACA Gallery, N.Y.C. (solo)
  • 1935, 1942 Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1937 Springfield Museum of Art, MA
  • 1937 College Art Association Traveling Exhibition
  • 1938 John Herron Art Institute
  • 1938 George Walter Vincents Smith Museum of Art
  • 1938, 1939 American Artists Congress
  • 1938, 1948 Whitney Museum of American Art
  • 1941 Fine Arts Society of San Diego, Calif.
  • 1941, 1944 American Water Color Society
  • 1941, 1944, 1945 Carnegie Institute, PA
  • 1942 A. Albright Gallery
  • 1942 Traveling Exhibition of Serigraphs, USSR
  • 1943 Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • 1943 De Young Memorial Museum, CA
  • 1943, 1945 Riverside Museum, N.Y.C.
  • 1944 Corcoran Museum
  • 1944 Philadelphia Art Alliance
  • 1944 UNESCO-International Exhibition, Museum d’Art Modern, Paris
  • 1944 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
  • 1944, 1945 Library of Congress (100 Prints of the Year)
  • 1944, 1957 Butler Institute of Art
  • 1945 Los Angeles Museum of Art
  • 1945 Albany Institute of History and Art
  • 1945, 1946 National Academy of Design
  • 1950 State Museum, Trenton, N.J.
  • 1950, 1951 Newark Art Museum
  • 1952 Wichita Art Museum
  • 1954 Circulating Exhibitions at:
  • Birmingham Ala. Museum of Art
    Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, OH
    Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, SC
    Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Auburn, AL
    High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
    Hunter Gallery of Art, Chattanooga, TN.
    Norton Gallery of Art, W. Palm Beach, Fl
    Delgado Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
  • 1956 John Heller Gallery, NY
  • 1958 Union of American Hebrew Congregations, N.Y.C. (solo)
  • 1966 Harbor Gallery, Cold Springs Harbor, L.I. (solo)
  • 1977 Parsons School of Design, NY
  • 1980 Montclair Art Museum
  • 1993 Montclair Art Museum
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • American Artists Congress (New York branch)
  • Artists Equity Association
  • Brooklyn Society of Artists
  • Federal Arts Project
  • New York Journal-American – Staff artist
  • Salons of America
  • Society of Independent Artists
  • VII. AWARDS

  • 1946, 1952 Brooklyn Museum
  • 1948 Butler Art Institute
  • 1948 Long Island Arts Festival
  • VIII. BIBLIOGRAPHY

    1. 1. American Art in the Newark Museum: Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture. Newark, New Jersey: Newark Museum, 1981.
    2. 2. American Narrative: Art of the 1930’s and 1940’s. New York: D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc.
    3. 3. Askart.com.
    4. 4. Brooklyn Museum: American Watercolors, Pastels, Collages: A Complete Illustrated Listing of Works in the Museum’s Collection. New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1984.
    5. 5. Wald, Lillian D. The House on Henry Street. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1915.

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