Edith Halpert

Sharon Lorenzo visits The Jewish Museum in New York.

In the photo above, Edith Halpert (1900-1970) is featured with the work of some of her artists in her Downtown Gallery.  Associate Curator Rebecca Shaykin, in her catalogue essay for the exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, noted the fact that Halpert was, in her early career, the first significant female gallerist in the city. [1]  Born Edith Gregoryevna Fivoosiovith in Odessa, Russia in 1900, she immigrated with her mother and sister after the death of her father to West Harlem where she helped out in the family candy and stationery store. While in high school she also attended classes at the Art Students League and the People’s Art Guild where she befriended her soon to be husband, Samuel Halpert. At the age of 20 she took a job in the investment bank S.W. Straus, and with her earnings decided to open an art gallery in 1926 to show the work of some American artists she had met in her classes.  Located first on West 13th Street, the gallery began with evening sales and cocktail parties to attract young friends whom she allowed to buy works on installment plans.[2]

One of her first and best customers was the daughter of Rhode Island Senator, Nelson Aldrich. Abby Aldrich had the good fortune to marry John Rockefeller Jr. in 1901.  She was an art advocate who joined Halpert supporting emerging artists of all faiths and colors. In 1928 she spent $20,000 in the gallery on artists such as John Marin and William Zorach.  Edith convinced Abby to create an art space in her West 54th Street apartment when her boys moved out for college.  John III and his brother Laurence went to Princeton, Winthrop to Yale and David to Harvard. Nelson, who enjoyed visiting art galleries with his mother, enrolled at Dartmouth College after his father befriended its President Hopkins who lived nearby their summer home in Maine in 1926. He and his mother would be instrumental in the beginnings of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, and the commissions for Rockefeller Center which the fortunes of Standard Oil funded as the family controlled so much of the oil and gas production in Mexico before it was nationalized in 1938.[3]   Of the 2000 works donated to the MOMA, 550 had been purchased by Abby from the Downtown Gallery by 1929.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1922.

By 1930, Halpert was asked to organize a major art show in Grand Central Terminal called The 33 Moderns, despite the grim fiscal environment in the nation.  She included such works as this one owned by the Rockefellers, The Peaceable Kingdom, which is an oil on canvas now in the Williamsburg Museum in Virginia.

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom.

By 1934, Edith and Nelson Rockefeller, who was then working for his father,  hosted New York’s First Municipal Art Exhibition in Rockefeller Center in February which sold works by American artists such as those following with 20,000 people  attending in the first week of the show.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

Stuart Davis (1892-1964)

In addition to her promotion of outstanding American painters of her day, Halpert also embraced and collected American folk art and primitive portraits which were predicates for the modernist painters. Cigar Store Indians, weather vanes and family portraits such as these were in her own personal collection as well as in the home of another of her wealthy patrons,  Electra Havemeyer Webb, who donated many of these works to her family museum in Shelburne, Vermont where some of  them reside to this day. [4]

Rooster Weathervane, 1875-90.

Agnes Frazee and Her Child, 1834.

In 1941, Halpert launched another first in her gallery, an exhibition entitled, American Negro Art.  She attempted to include works by as many living artists of color as she could find, and collectors like Duncan Phillips snatched up many works by Jacob Lawrence and his peers.

The Migration Series, Jacob Lawrence, 1941.

After the death of another gallerist, Alfred Stieglitz, many of his American artists moved to Halpert’s gallery including Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Marsden Hartley.  In 1954, she commissioned John Baur to write a beginner’s guide for art enthusiasts entitled The ABC’s for Collectors of American Contemporary Art.  Toward the end of her career, she lent works freely from her own collection and willed her modern art collection to the Corcoran Museum and her folk art to the Smithsonian Museum. By 1968 she had fostered the development of American art for an entire generation.  No doubt the family of noted banker Felix Warburg would have been proud to have her in their family home which was built in 1908. Today it has been redesigned as The Jewish Museum and is a wonderful example of how historic preservationists can create adaptive reuses of older buildings.

The Home of Felix Warburg, NYC.

Portrait of Edith Halpert, Bernard Karfiol, 1935.

The life of Edith Halpert is a stunning example for gallerists today as to how they can support freedom of expression and diversity of opinion in our days of political correctness.  We celebrate her bravery in an era of male dominance of the art world and applaud the Jewish Museum for highlighting her contribution.

The Jewish Museum        October 18, 2019- February 9, 2020

Header Graphic – Photo from Life Magazine, 1952.




[1] Rebecca Shaykin, Edith Halpert: The Downtown Gallery and the Rise of American Art.  The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, 2019, p. 12.

[2] Ibid, p. 30.

[3] Sharon Lorenzo, Thesis, The Orozco Murals at Dartmouth College and the Rockefeller Family. 2003-2005.

[4] Ibid, p. 166.