History And Context
Robert Spencer tended to paint scenes of working class life in and around his beloved town of New Hope, Pennsylvania. However, between 1916 and 1920, Spencer occasionally deviated from these depictions to paint panoramic views of the Delaware River, just as his contemporaries were doing. Across the Delaware, a winter landscape, considered the “hallmark of Pennsylvania impressionism,” is perhaps the earliest in this series of paintings. It is certainly the earliest Spencer painting in The Phillips Collection, and the only one without figures. Spencer concentrated only briefly on pure landscape, quickly returning to scenes in which landscape was merely a backdrop for figure compositions.
In composition and technique, Across the Delaware reflects the influence of paintings by Daniel Garber, Spencer’s teacher and colleague at the New Hope School, that depict the quarries of New Hope: square format, horizontal layering of planes, and high horizon line designed to limit perspective and flatten the composition. Just as Garber's The Quarry has the image of the quarry reflected in the Delaware River with scintillating touches of color, the snow-draped dwellings of New Hope in Across the Delaware are mirrored in the river. To achieve this effect, Spencer scraped back the first layer of paint, then carefully placed over it thick horizontal daubs of colors from the embankment.
When Spencer died in 1931, his widow asked Duncan Phillips if he would put on a retrospective exhibition of the paintings that were still in Spencer’s studio. Phillips kindly agreed, putting on a memorial show in 1932. He said about Spencer’s paintings that he had an affinity for the “French classic feeling of composition [and] innate American reserve.”