Art & Design

Reclaiming Philadelphia’s Forgotten Female Modernist Artist

January 16, 2024 | by Kimberly Haas

Although she assumed a male name in order to be taken seriously and known as an artist, Peter Miller today has slipped out of the collective art memory, even in her hometown of Philadelphia.

Miller was hardly a recluse in her lifetime. “Peter knew all the surrealists,” said art dealer and conservator Paul Gratz. “She was good friends with Max Ernst.” Locally, Miller was close friends with Anne d’Harnoncourt, curator of 20th century art and subsequent director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).

But unlike many artists, Miller was not compelled to actively seek shows and collectors. “She was fiercely independent,” said Gratz. “She just loved to paint.” Coming from an affluent background, she was able to focus on that love.

Artist Peter Miller in her studio in 1945. | Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

She was born Henrietta Myers in 1913 and grew up in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Her family co-owned the Hanover Shoe Company, the town newspaper, the Hanover Evening Sun, and Hanover Shoe Farm, which bred Standardbred horses. The family home at 305 Baltimore Street, known as the Myers Mansion, was built in 1911 by Philadelphia architect Herman Miller.

In September 1933, she applied to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). In the narrative on the application form Miller wrote, “I would rather fail at painting than succeed at anything else.”

Miller’s application listed her local address as the Warburton Hotel at 1929 Sansom Street, which was a residential hotel for professional women at the time. The Italian Renaissance Revival style building was designed around 1926 by architect Arthur Loomis Harmon, who also designed the Empire State Building. It was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1995 and the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It is currently occupied by Kate’s Place, a program led by Project HOME to provide supportive housing for formerly homeless people.

The former Warburton Hotel at 20th and Sansom Streets in 2014. | Photo: Molly Lester

In 1935, she married C. Earle Miller, a PAFA classmate who had studied sculpture and printmaking. Together they made trips to Europe, with letters of introduction from her teacher Arthur Carles to Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Joan Miró.

Soon after the couple married, they purchased a ranch in Española, New Mexico near Santa Fe with 85 acres, which enabled them to lease an additional 5,000 acres from the Bureau of Land Management. The site was adjacent to the San Ildefonso Pueblo, which dates back to around 1300 AD. At about the same time they also purchased Rock Raymond Farm in East Brandywine Township, Chester County and mostly divided their time between the two properties. They also maintained a townhouse in Philadelphia, close to where Anne d’Harnoncourt lived.

The next couple of decades yielded a handful of significant shows for Miller. “Her first exhibition under the name ‘Peter’ was at the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico (now the New Mexico Museum of Art),” said Gratz. “It was not long after she and Earle came to New Mexico.” Later, she had two shows in the 1940s in New York City at the Julian Levy Gallery, 42 East 57th Street, considered the premier showcase for Surrealism in America at the time. She was also included in “The Women,” a show of 30 female artists at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery on West 57th Street in June 1945.

Dragonfly, Snake and Turtle by Peter Miller. | Image courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Back home in Pennsylvania, Peter and Earle had a joint show at PAFA in 1954. Peter later had a show at PAFA’s Peale House at 1811 Chestnut Street, which was the headquarters for the school from 1964 to 1982. Museum records show that PAFA purchased her painting Dragonfly, Snake and Turtle for $900 from that show.

The time that Miller spent in New Mexico was especially influential. “In her early paintings, you can see the influence of Klee and Picasso,” noted Gratz. “But in the West, she developed her own style.”

Independent scholar, curator, and gallerist Francis M. Naumann noted in a monograph titled Peter Miller: Forgotten Woman of American Modernism, that many images in her paintings recalled the petroglyphs and other artifacts from New Mexico’s pueblos.

Her friend Bill Richards, a frame maker, in the foreword to the book, called Miller “intrinsically animistic, believing all natural things animate and inanimate had a soul. A respect-instilling trait corresponded to her surrealist predilection for the unseen. She knew it was real, that nature is alive.”

Story of the Hunt by Peter Miller. | Image courtesy of Gratz Gallery

Her painting techniques were also distinctive. “In some of her paintings, she textured the ground to mimic canyon walls,” Gratz said. “In others, she used sgraffito (a technique where a surface layer of paint is scratched to reveal a contrasting color beneath it) and applied thin veils of color that she would then rub with cloth. One small area of canvas can contain six to eight different colors.”

“She rarely dated or signed her paintings,” said Gratz. “Part of the reason she’s little-known today was her steadfast devotion to the work itself and not to self-promotion.”

Miller’s husband Earle died in 1991. She passed away five years later at the age of 83 after a car accident and brain injury. She bequeathed her Chester County farm and around 250 acres to Natural Lands and the Brandywine Museum of Art. She left the New Mexico ranch to the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Miller also made a bequest to the PMA for acquisitions. Her paintings were left in the care of her friend Bill Richards.

Courtship by Peter Miller. | Image courtesy of Gratz Gallery

Fast forward 25 years or so and Miller’s work and story are being revived. In 2018, Francis Naumann mounted the exhibition “Two Forgotten Women of American Modernism: Sculptor Mary Callery and Painter Peter Miller” at his gallery on West 57th Street in New York City. He in turn led Paul Gratz to the collection in the care of Bill Richards, who had since retired to the Catskills. For 15 years he stored Miller’s paintings in a barn with no heating or air conditioning, but wanted to have them conserved. Gratz took on the effort in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

A show at the Peyton Wright Gallery in Santa Fe, “Peter Miller: Coming Home,” was held in 2021. Currently, Morton Contemporary, in collaboration with Gratz Gallery in Doylestown, are exhibiting “The Peter Miller Story: A Forgotten Woman of American Modernism,” at 115 South 13th Street. “It’s amazing to me that we’ve opened her debut gallery show in Philadelphia,” declared owner Debbie Morton.

Holdings in local permanent collections include Second Hieroglyph, a gift of Anne d’Harnoncourt and Joseph Rishel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, two ink drawings at the Brandywine Museum of Art, and the aforementioned Dragonfly, Snake and Turtle at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.


“The Peter Miller Story: A Forgotten Woman of American Modernism” is on view at Morton Contemporary at 115 South 13th Street until January 20. For more information, and to explore the exhibition, see the gallery’s website: https://mortoncontemporary.com/



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About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

One Comment:

  1. Paul Gratz says:

    Kimberly,
    Thank you so much for writing this story about Peter Miller. For some reason none of the Philadelphia Magazines or Newspapers responded to our requests.
    It is truly an amazing discover in the art world.
    Her story is so interesting and multidimensional. Cant thank you enough!
    Best regards,
    Paul S. Gratz

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