Over the course of a fifty-year career that spanned continents, media, and aesthetic schools of thought, Biddle created works that gave expressive form to his own experiences and to the changing face of twentieth century life. Born to a prominent Philadelphia family, Biddle was educated in places of privilege, including Groton, Harvard, and Harvard law school. His family’s social expectations contradicted his own creative instincts, a tension at the root of two youthful emotional breakdowns. By 1911, the artist had discovered his own voice and enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris. The following year, he furthered his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Throughout his life, Biddle was an inveterate traveler who absorbed lessons while working in Europe, Tahiti, South America, Africa, and Asia.
Living abroad in the early decades of the twentieth century, Biddle developed relationships with a wide swath of artists whose work influenced his own development, including Fred Frieseke, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and Jules Pascin. Following service as a United States infantry officer on the French front from 1917-1919, Biddle emerged from the Great War “with a clearly defined orientation and a desperate need to make up for lost time.” For two years, he lived in a Polynesian village before establishing a studio in New York, a decision that did little to dampen his enthusiasm for world travel. In 1928, Biddle accompanied the muralist Diego Rivera on a sketching trip in Mexico, an experience that would inform his own highly successful career as a social realist focused on the contemporary American scene. During the Depression, Biddle drew on Rivera’s example and on his own childhood connection with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to champion the development of the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration.
In 1930, Biddle traveled to Charleston, South Carolina at the invitation of DuBose Heyward, author of Porgy, and the composer George Gershwin, who was interested in adapting the novel for opera. For two months, the artist sketched genre scenes and figure studies of the people he encountered in the Lowcountry, many of which were later developed into finished studio canvases. Biddle’s illustrations were included in the original 1935 libretto to Porgy and Bess.
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