Martha Mayer Erlebacher

Martha Mayer Erlebacher<i>, Flora</i>, 2004

Flora (2004), an allegorical portrait of a beautiful young woman with folded arms, was the centerpiece of a small retrospective of paintings by Martha Mayer Erlebacher at the Seraphin Gallery in Philadelphia (Feb. 25−April 4, 2005). In one hand, Flora holds a white vase-like calla lily, in the other, a sheaf of long, green, spear-like leaves, which she formally presents to the viewer. For the artist these symbols represent both the destructive and vital powers of nature. The calla lily is the symbolic flower of death. The eyes of Flora appear watchful, cautionary, although she faintly smiles. Her long auburn hair is entwined with delicate purple-blue vinca flowers, which cascade about her naked shoulders and down the sleeves of her green silk dress. The formal pose of Flora, the heart-shaped face and the iconography suggest a source of inspiration in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (c. 1482) and the goddess Flora, clothed in a flower-covered gown. The image is both pagan and spiritual, neoclassical and organic, reflecting the twin themes of Erlebacher’s oeuvre of the last forty years.

Throughout her long career Erlebacher has sought to connect her art to what is lasting and timeless. Through her devotion to realism she approaches nature and the human figure; through carefully composed neoclassical compositions and mythological narratives she reconnects to the Western cultural tradition. Flora is a successful fusion of the two themes. Erlebacher also paints in the still-life genre. Her Still Life with Lemons, Mangos and Melon (2003) is a handsome, formal composition. The interplay of various shades of cool white in the folded napkin, long-stemmed fruit bowl and small teacup are gracefully counter-balanced by the interplay of warm browns in the ceramic pitcher with brown lid, wooden table surface and several reddish-brown mangos. At the center of the composition are several exquisitely crafted golden lemons, from which all the other colors derive their primary source of light and chromatic strength.

Age of Iron (2001) and Agon (1996) are representative of the ambitious allegorical paintings Erlebacher has exhibited over the years at the Forum Gallery in New York and the More Gallery in Philadelphia, such as Adam and Eve: The Return (2001), the 1984 Picnic series and On the Rock or Sand (1999). Agon depicts two nude male figures, wrestling Greco-Roman style on a desolate rocky landscape. Above, dominating most of the composition, roils a malevolent black sky. In the far distance, separating the dark sea from the even darker sky is a thin horizon touched with light from the setting sun. The grim existential tone suggests a modernist approach to figurative art. “The events depicted in my paintings,” she writes, “occur not in the time of everyday life but in mythic time, when all important human action began.”

Several other works in the exhibition include a handsome still life, Nectorines and Redware (2003), a visual fugue created from the interplay of black tones and chromatic variations in the fruit and ceramic jar. Erlebacher embraces ideas and substance over aesthetic prettiness. She has spent years researching human anatomy, mythology and history as a preclude to developing her present classical style. Her life-long commitment to academic study and the classics explains why Erlebacher has become remarkably influential as an instructor of anatomy, drawing and painting to a generation of students who attended the Philadelphia College of Art and the New York Academy of Art.  Seraphin Gallery is located at 1108 Pine Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107. Telephone (215) 923-7000. On the Web at The artist is represented by the Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10151. Telephone (212) 355-4545. On the web at

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume 22, Number 2