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North Hills Monthly

Bellevue Museum Showcases World Traveler’s Art, Pittsburgh History

Dec 01, 2014 10:27AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
With more than 160 paintings on display and a total of 1,100 paintings stored for future display, the John A. Hermann, Jr. Memorial Art Museum has the potential to become a Bellevue treasure. But who, you may ask, was John Hermann, and why have so few heard of him?

Born in 1855 in what was then Allegheny City (now North Side) John Hermann was the son of a prominent shoemaker. Hermann worked in the business with his father, and when his mother passed away, he began painting full time. The world was his canvas. Hermann traveled extensively, painting scenes from the European countries he visited. His frequent trips to Florida resulted in a rare collection of paintings of Seminole Indians as well as a compilation of paintings of sharecroppers.

Primarily self-taught, Hermann studied with famed Pittsburgh artist George Hetzel at the Scalp Level School of Painting in Cambria County, which produced dozens of local artists. Landscapes, seascapes and dogs are common themes, done in a variety of mediums, including watercolors and oils.

The collection also features many paintings depicting Pittsburgh as it was during his lifetime. “He painted almost every single monument throughout all of the parks; a number of those monuments are gone or disfigured, or not as they were originally.  That is a very interesting record for Pittsburgh,” said Woody Straub, an art and antiques dealer who appraised the collection. The bronze and ivory sculptures that Hermann collected throughout his travels are also on display.

Hermann never married; when he died in 1942, his will decreed that his paintings be displayed in a museum, that they would never be sold, and that the public should never have to pay to see his work. He wanted the people of Bellevue to own the paintings; shortly before his death, he purchased a mansion for use as a museum, but died before that goal could be accomplished. In the 1950s, the original mansion started to deteriorate, so it was sold and the artwork was moved into its current home, the museum on Lincoln Avenue.

“When you look at his art and read the material that he attached to his subjects, he was determined to produce a historical record of wherever he was; that clearly  suggests his original plan for a museum was always dominant in his mind,” said Straub.

Ed Dietz, owner of Fred Dietz Florals in Bellevue, sits on the museum’s board of directors. He explained that because Hermann was independently wealthy, he never had to sell any of his paintings. “We probably have 95 to 98 percent of his work,” said Dietz, adding that this is an extremely rare happenstance. “We know of no other group in the world that has 98 percent of any artist’s paintings. Nobody kept their paintings; every artist was a starving artist that needed to paint to make money.”

In the art world, the true monetary value of a piece of artwork is based on the value placed upon it by a buyer. Even though none of the paintings has ever been sold, Straub nevertheless believes that Bellevue has a gold mine on their hands. “If this collection were actually to come on the market, it would be staggering,” said Straub.

Despite the fact that the museum has been in existence for over 40 years in its present location, only recently has there has been a resurgence of interest in Hermann’s art.  “It often happens in the art world that it takes a group to get together that has a passion to preserve a piece of history,” said Straub. “Right now, for the first time, there is that little group. They know it’s a treasure, and they are determined to preserve it for the future.”  

John A. Hermann, Jr. Memorial Art Museum
318 Lincoln Ave, Bellevue, PA 15202

Photos by Tiffany Walker