Peter Miller: Forgotten Woman of American Modernism


    “I would rather fail at painting than succeed at anything else in life” writes Peter Miller with passion and full commitment on her 1933 application to study at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA.

     Peter Miller in her studio, ca. 1945, Julien Levy Gallery Records 

    Born Henrietta Myers, American modernist and surrealist painter, Peter Miller, attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1933 - 1934. As a young woman artist at the prestigious PAFA, Henrietta saw barriers ahead in her career—in a world of artists, collectors, and critics that was dominated by men—should she take her given name or transform her public and artistic persona into a man in order to capture the attention of a male centered world? In her application to PAFA, she wrote that “she would rather fail at painting than succeed at anything else in life.” Ultimately, harking back to her childhood nickname of ‘Peter’, and marrying fellow PAFA student Earle ‘Miller’ in 1935, surrealist modernist Peter Miller was born.

    Peter came from a very affluent family in Hanover, Pennsylvania, and later settled at Rock Raymond Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. In her big hearted, ever philanthropic way, upon her death in 1996 she designated her 250 acre farm and private property to be donated to the Brandywine Conservancy. Classified as an ‘American Modernist’, the artist began her career with two solo shows at the prestigious Julien Levy gallery in 1944 and 1946 – indeed her name as Peter Miller helped her career to take off. Reviewers of her exhibitions noted the unmistakable influence of artist Joan Miro (whose work Peter owned and whom she knew), Arthur Carles whom she studied under, and sources in Native American culture. Despite her male pseudonym, Peter was part of a show of over 30 female painters organized in 1945 by Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of this Century.

    Throughout her lifetime, Peter came to know an illustrious coterie of artists, including the Calders, Henri Matisse, Max Ernst, and the surrealists of the time in New York City all of whom influenced her aesthetic leanings. Additionally, one does not have to look hard to see her work sources inspiration at different times from Pablo Picasso, Dali, Fernand Leger, and Paul Klee, but Peter Miller’s work is distinctive from all of these artists by its mystical elements which is totally unlike other European artists.

    Interestingly, the single greatest influence of her artistic vision and style may well have been born of a very special friendship with one Edith Warner, a mystic from Sante Fe, New Mexico who became Peter’s mentor, and confidante. Peter, and her husband Earle Miller, split their personal time between Pennsylvania and their spiritual home in Santa Fe where the couple eagerly escaped high society life on their large desert estate. It was her many years in Sante Fe, developing deep personal connections with the San Ildefonso Pueblo, that perhaps was the single greatest influence on her creative perspective and artistic expression. Peter’s mentor, Edith, was personally connected to the San Ildefonso Pueblo, and together these two women were invited to witness sacred ceremonies and rituals, an honor granted to very few white people at that time. Through the many friendships Peter made throughout Sante Fe, her body of work began to absorb a fascination and even obsession with original petroglyphs, ceremonial objects, and the soothing colors of the desert sand, sky, and canyon walls. A deep sensual painterly glow, resulting from layers and layers of paint, containing in places up to 8 different colors in a small square inch, has come to define her unique aesthetic.

    Every painting of Peter’s is a story, reflecting her heart and soul, allowing her love of nature and beliefs in all metaphysical things to shine through her work. She believed in exploring the magical realm, telepathy, synchronicity, alchemy, ESP, and tarot card reading. The concept of the collective subconscious captivated her curiosity and imagination. Peter and her husband Earle often hosted dinner parties, inviting their guests to join them in storytelling and experimenting with the psychic phenomenon. Peter was a highly intellectual woman; her knowledge and interest in ancient cultures, history, and architecture is often reflected in her body of work. Steeped in the principles of theosophy and being very familiar with the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG) of her peers, Peter Miller still remained independent in her artistic language and continued to explore her own unique vision of nature and spirituality throughout her long career as a painter. Peter loved to represent her spiritual experiences in and on her canvases.

    Just as Peter Miller was being recognized, for reasons unknown she began to retreat from the spotlight, and turned inward, removing herself from the public eye. She continued painting in the 60s and 70s, but she stopped trying to promote her work through galleries. In 1986, towards the end of her life, Peter and her husband donated their beloved Miro painting, Horse, Pipe and Red Flower (Still life with Horse) to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Anne d’Harnoncourt, the Director of the PMA at the time, was one of Peter’s very best friends. Peter Miller was an artist, a philanthropist, a mystic, and a fearlessly courageous woman with an endless passion for nature, spirituality, and exploration. Until recently, Peter Miller has largely been a forgotten figure within the history of American Modernism. It is our honor and privilege to present the life work of Peter Miller.