Henry Bainbridge McCarter (1866-1942) was an artist who straddled the leap from realism to modernism at the turn of the 20th century. As a teacher for many years, he influenced a generation of modern artists.
McCarter was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania. At a young age, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, (PAFA), where he studied under Thomas Eakins and became an accomplished realist painter. He graduated from PAFA in 1883, at the tender age of seventeen.
After graduation, McCarter embarked on trip to Paris, where he would have seen the art of the Post-Impressionistists. On a second trip to Europe, McCarter met many celebrated artists of the day, including Vincent Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, and Edgar Degas.
While in Paris, McCarter studied with artists that would leave a lasting impression on his career: Puvis de Chavannes, a Symbolist artist who used realist techniques to create other-worldly scenes, and Léon Bonnat, a highly skilled portraitist who would go on to head the École des Beaux-Arts. In addition, McCarter apprenticed in lithography and printmaking with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, where he honed his skills as an illustrator.
McCarter returned to Philadelphia in 1900, where he joined PAFA and began a successful career as an illustrator, creating works for national magazines such as Collier’s, Scribner’s, and Harper’s. In 1902, McCarter began teaching at PAFA as its first instructor of illustration in their newly instituted Illustration department, and continued to teach illustration until his death in 1942. McCarter taught alongside Pennsylvania Impressionists Hugh Breckenridge and Thomas Anshutz. Although McCarter’s art became increasingly modernist and abstract over time, he emphasized excellence in draftsmanship in his teaching.
Among his most famous students were Charles Demuth, known for his Precisionist artwork that blew open the boundaries of conventional art forms, and Arthur B. Carles, whose sumptuous and colorful modern works presaged the Abstract Expressionist movement, and was part of the world-changing Armory Show of 1913. In turn, Carles would influence an entire generation of modern artists through his own work as an instructor at PAFA.
In addition to his illustration work and teaching at PAFA, McCarter participated in many exhibitions, was awarded medals at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, and years later, at the Philadelphia Art Club in the 1930s.