Mystical Brushstrokes: Peter Miller’s Surrealist Life
“I would rather fail at painting than succeed at anything else in life” writes Peter Miller on her 1933 application to study at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA.
The next time you visit Center City, be warned - a visit to Morton Contemporary will leave you deeply infatuated with the artwork of Peter Miller. Distinguished by symbols and figures against gradient backdrops of cerulean, orange, yellow, and green blended with pinks and reds, Peter works demonstrate a remarkable talent unprecedented in the early years of the American Modernist movement.
This talent Peter fostered as a student at PAFA in the 1930s and evolved over forty years, each of her eras marked by a slight change in style affected by her life experiences. A treasure trove of her works were discovered in a barn during 2020, painstakingly restored, and now are on view in Peter’s home city of Philadelphia.
Becoming Peter Miller (1933-1934)
Taking place during the Great Depression, the story of Peter Miller begins with a formidable challenge faced by Henrietta Myers. Born to a prosperous family in Hanover, Pennsylvania, Henrietta grew up immersed in bucolic fields, forests, rolling hills, and streams, surroundings which later would show up in her life works. A student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1933 to 1934, Henrietta grappled with the question of identity in a male-dominated art world.
Believing she would be treated more fairly by critics, peers, and audiences, Henrietta decided to adopt a public and artistic persona of a man. Choosing the name 'Peter,' a childhood nickname, she forged a path that defied societal expectations and set the stage for a groundbreaking career. She married fellow student of the Academy, Earle Miller, and thus became ‘Peter Miller.’
An American Surrealist (1940s-60s)
Renowned as an ‘American Surrealist,’ Peter’s exhibitions at the Julien Levy gallery in 1944 and 1946 propelled her into the spotlight as a surrealist modernist. Contemporaries with other prolific and illustrious greats, including the Calders, Henri Matisse, Max Ernst, and New York City surrealists, Peter remained distinctive in her work despite apparent influences from iconic artists.
Notably, a special friendship with mystic Edith Warner became a defining influence, shaping Peter's creative perspective and expression. In January 1969, she exhibited at PAFA’s Peale House Gallery. Among the works exhibited was “Dragonfly, Snake, and Turtle,” which PAFA acquired as part of its permanent collection that year.
Painting the Spirit: The San Ildefonso Connection
Venturing beyond the conventional, Peter drew inspiration from mystical elements and a unique infusion of Native American culture. Allured by Sante Fe, New Mexico, Peter and Earle purchased a 25-acre ranch and split their time between there and Pennsylvania. Deeply connected to the San Ildefonso Pueblo, Peter's art absorbed the essence of sacred ceremonies, petroglyphs, desert creatures, and the serene colors of the Southwestern US landscape. Every painting reflects Peter's profound connection to nature, spirituality, and metaphysical exploration.
Theosophy, Transcendentalism, and Dinner Parties
Intellectually adventurous, Peter probed metaphysical realms, exploring telepathy, synchronicity, alchemy, ESP, and tarot card reading. Dinner parties hosted with Earle became forums for storytelling and psychic experiments. Rooted in theosophy and aligned with the Transcendental Painting Group, Peter’s work embodies an inimitable artistic perspective and language that repelled socially and culturally imposed boundaries during her lifetime.
Retreating Shadows: The Later Years
Upon gaining recognition, she chose to retreat from the public eye in the 60s, turning inward to focus on her artistic practice free from pressure of promotion. In 1986, she and Earle donated a beloved Miro painting, Horse, Pipe and Red Flower (Still life with Horse) to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose director at the time, Anne d’Harnoncourt, was one of Peter’s dearest friends. Upon her passing in 1996, Peter bequeathed Rock Raymond Farm, her 250-acre property in Chester County, PA where she spent her last years, to the Brandywine Conservancy.
Legacy Beyond the Canvas: Peter Miller's Enduring Impact
Peter Miller's legacy endures as an artist, philanthropist, mystic, and a fearless explorer of natural and spiritual realms. While she may have been largely forgotten within the annals of American Modernism, ardent champions of her work, staff at Morton Contemporary and Gratz Gallery, joined forces to do what they can to restore her to prominence by telling her story. Peter Miller’s story is a true Philadelphia story about a trailblazer who transcended artistic norms and left an indelible mark on the world.
About the Exhibition:
In partnership with Gratz Gallery, Morton Contemporary presents “The Peter Miller Story: A Forgotten Woman of American Modernism,” an exhibition of works by Peter Miller (1913-1996). This exhibition is on view through May 2024. Visit https://mortoncontemporary.com/ for more information. Walk-ins to see the show are welcome but reservations are kindly appreciated - call (215) 735-2800 to make an appointment.
Featured Image: "Peale House Gallery Exhibition: Peter Miller: Paintings (Exhibition dates: January 30, 1969 - March 9, 1969)," 1969. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Archives, Philadelphia, PC0123_123. https://pafaarchives.org/item/46030