A stalwart advocate of the arts in Richmond, Virginia, for over sixty years, Theresa Pollak was as celebrated as a painter as she was as a teacher. Born there to Hungarian immigrants, Pollak’s life spanned three centuries, making her a witness to enormous cultural, political, and social change in the Virginia capital. While she sought advanced training in New York City and actively painted during sojourns to New England and Europe, Pollak spent the majority of her life in her hometown, leaving an unprecedented legacy as a teacher and a painter.
At the age of thirteen, Pollak attended classes at the Art Club of Richmond and received her first formal instruction in painting from Adèle Clark and Nora Houston, two local painters and suffragettes who paired the importance of arts education with civic responsibility. This interaction would set the young woman’s course. Five years later, she matriculated at Westhampton College, the recently established women’s coordinate of the University of Richmond, from which she graduated in 1921. Having been nominated for a scholarship, Pollak subsequently enrolled at the Art Students League in New York, where her teachers included Allen Tucker and George Bridgman. For Pollak, this was a pivotal test, as she gauged her ability and ambition against fellow artists from across the country. She was sufficiently encouraged by her experiences that even after a year-long illness temporarily forced her to return to Richmond in 1924, she was back in New York two years later, participating in her first group show. Success came early on as Pollak regularly showed works and won prizes in important exhibitions in the city. One still life painting was included in the Whitney Museum’s First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting in 1932. The following year, she was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship, which funded study at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum.
In 1928, the dean of the School of Social Work and Public Health (the precursor to what would later become the Richmond Division of the College of William and Mary), offered Pollak a position as the school’s instructor of painting and sculpture. That fall, Pollak convened her first night class of twenty students in a modest studio housed in a refurbished stable behind the college’s original building. Over the next four decades, the institution would be reorganized twice. In the midst of these changes, Pollak was a constant, building an art department that eventually grew to be one of the nation’s largest professional art training grounds. Remembered as an exacting yet supportive teacher, Pollak encouraged generations of students to pursue careers in the arts, including painters Judith Godwin and Nell Blaine.
Pollak never stopped maturing as an artist. Writing in the companion catalogue to a 1940 exhibition of her work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, director Thomas C. Colt, Jr., praised her “freedom gained from technical mastery, happier color, and a . . . gracious emotional quality.” At the urging of her students, in 1958 Pollak traveled to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to study with Hans Hofmann. The result was a series of paintings that diverged from her largely naturalistic style and embraced the contemporary manner of Abstract Expressionism.
Although Pollak’s style evolved as her career progressed, the depiction of her studio and its environs was a recurring subject, as exemplified by Art Studio. A seemingly spontaneous representation, the painting details a small corner of the sunlit room, comfortably furnished with objects related to the study and execution of art. Piled books rest atop an elegant bent-leg side table positioned next to an occupied easel, while a nearby wicker chair is strewn with scattered newspapers. A small maquette of a female torso sits on the window sill. In the background, a potential still life composition of fruit and stems is arranged atop a second surface, which partially obscures stacked canvases leaning against the wall.
Executed when Pollak was just beginning her extended career as a teacher, Art Studio honors the inspirations and elements of artistic production. Pollak’s studio seems a place of refinement and refreshment, a creative haven where the instructor retreated to record her “reaction to life.” Often presented in Pollak’s compositions as sources of light, open doors and windows also connect a space external to the insular world of the artist’s studio, a place where Theresa Pollak thrived as a persistent champion of artistic expression.