Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Florence Riefle Bahr (1909-1998)
MSA SC 3520-13553

Biography:

Born February 2, 1909, in Baltimore, Maryland. Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Riefle. Married Leonard Marion Bahr, 1934; three children. Died January 12, 1998, in Elkridge, Maryland.

Born into a musically-talented family in 1909, Florence Riefle Bahr quickly established herself as a visual artist, dropping out of Dickenson in 1928 after only one year to attend classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.1  Bahr worked hard to make up the time she had lost while attending Dickenson College by taking classes during the day, evening and summer.  Her hard work eventually paid off, and in 1930 Bahr graduated with a diploma of Costume Design, followed by a 1931 diploma in Fine Arts instruction and the James Young Memorial Prize Award.2  Florence Bahr’s love of learning would lead her to continue her education, attending Catonsville Community College from 1959 to 1962, as well as completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting in 1962 and a Master of Fine Arts in Education and Printmaking in 1967 at the Maryland Institute.

While a student at the Maryland Institute during the 1930s, Florence met portraitist Leonard Bahr, marrying him in 1934.3  The couple had three children and moved to Elkridge, Maryland in 1947 where they would spend the rest of their lives.4

Florence Bahr was a very diverse artist who drew from many different mediums, techniques and subjects to create her art.  She created watercolors, inks, pastels, oils, etchings and lithographs, woodcuts, linocuts and textiles, using such varied techniques as designing, sewing, weaving, assemblage and collage, book illustration, experimental printmaking and sculpture.5  She herself once commented that, “I take my sketch book everywhere I go,” adding, “I love to experiment with different things and to try different effects.”6  Leonard Bahr once described an incident in which his wife’s love for “different effects” led her to carry home a dead fish after a morning of beach-combing:

Now I can see picking up a piece of driftwood, but this was a stinking dead fish.  But by golly, she made a woodcut of it that was just beautiful.  She painted a red moon onto it that gave it a Japanese feeling.7

While respected for the diversity of her talents, Florence Bahr’s work was perhaps most appreciated for the extent to which she used art to capture important events that occurred during her lifetime, making her works a snapshot of Maryland history.  Bahr attended the trials of the Catonsville Nine, H. Rap Brown, and former Governor Marvin Mandel, recording these infamous trials in her sketchbook.8  Similarly, Bahr portrayed idyllic scenes in local history, such as “beautiful watercolor scenes of Baltimore rowhouses from generations ago.”9

Florence Bahr’s passion for social activism influenced her depiction of important events in the expansion of civil rights that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s.  Having attended the March on Washington, Bahr was profoundly influenced by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his violent death, resulting in her creation of ‘Homage to Martin Luther King,’ which hangs prominently in lobby of the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, located in Baltimore.10  Bahr’s interest in social activism led her to use her work to make a statement in support of such varied civil rights causes as women’s rights, improved education, adequate housing conditions for low-income families and improved prison facilities.11  Passionate about her work, Bahr once commented that she would “rather paint than eat.”12

Florence Bahr’s love of art and social activism was rivaled by her love for antique dolls, a subject that she explored extensively, creating a watercolor record of more than 200 antique dolls.  In exploring her passion for antique dolls Florence Bahr opened Humpty Dumpty Dolls and Toys in Ellicott City, Maryland.  Partly a toy store, partly a museum, Bahr ran the shop for several years.13

Florence Bahr received numerous awards throughout her lifetime, beginning in 1936 with the Baltimore Museum of Art Print Club Purchase Prize.  In 1952, Bahr was honored in the Baltimore Museum of Art All Maryland Show, followed by similar recognition in a 1968 Maryland Institute Alumni Show where she won the F. Weber Award and a 1969 Loyola College Baltimore Outdoor Show, in which she received the 1969 Purchase Prize.  In 1971 Florence Bahr was awarded the second place prize in watercolors in the Constellation Art Contest.  Posthumously, Florence Bahr was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999.

Tragically, Florence Bahr was killed in a fire that destroyed her home on January 12, 1998.  Since her death, her work has remained an important part of the art world.  Her niece described her as “truly unique, always marching to her own drummer, passionately and intensely devoted to her family and her art.”14  In a letter to The Baltimore Sun, a reader reflected on the significance of Bahr and her work, following her death, “The artist spent a splendid career celebrating life by capturing images of her world on canvas and in sketchbooks,” continuing, “the artist’s legacy lives through her undying passion for portraying life in 20th-century America.”15  Her daughter, Mary, an artist herself, noted that, “you can’t sum up her life in one moment.  She did so much.  She was an artist.”16  Elizabeth Schaaf, archivist for the Peabody Institute, which holds some of Bahr’s work and has displayed it at various times, commented that, “Her prints, her watercolors, her sketches that were done in the heat of the moment, that’s what will survive.  She could capture the intensity of a crowd, the color.”17  Carolyn Stegman, in her book Women of Achievement in Maryland History, perhaps best described Florence Bahr and the lasting impact of her work:

Florence Bahr captured some striking images in her day, and her work remains important.  She had a curious eye, a compassionate heart, a dogged determination, and an undying passion for portraying life in twentieth-century America.  Frequently described as a ‘Renaissance woman,’ she was a diverse role model.  Artist, feminist, environmentalist, consummate social activist – Florence Bahr gave her all to make the world a better place.18
Endnotes:

1. "Painter in a Musical Family Would Rather Draw Than Eat," The Baltimore Sun, 29 June, 1936.

2. "Florence Riefle Bahr," Maryland ArtSource, http://www.marylandartsource.org/artists/detail_000000131.html, Accessed on 18 July 2006.

3. "Florence Riefle Bahr;" Del Quentin Wilbur, "Artist Dies in Elkridge Fire: Florence Bahr's Home Destroyed in Two Alarm Blaze," The Baltimore Sun, January 13, 1998; "Florence Bahr's Passion; Fire Victim: Works of Prolific Elkridge Artist Endures in Sketches and Paintings," The Baltimore Sun, January 2, 1998.

4. "Florence Riefle Bahr."

5. "Florence Riefle Bahr."

6. Jack Dawson, "A Family of Artists," The Sun Magazine, 10 January 1982.

7. Ibid.

8. "Florence Bahr's Passion;" Wilbur.

9. "Florence Bahr's Passion."

10. "Florence Bahr's Passion."

11. Carolyn B. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History (Forestville, MD: Anaconda Press, 2002), 281-282.

12. Ibid., 282.

13. Dawson; Wilbur.

14. "Thank You for Words on Florence Bahr," The Baltimore Sun, 8 February 1998.

15. "Florence Bahr's Passion."

16. Wilbur.

17. Ibid.

18. Stegman, 282.
 

Biography written by 2006 summer intern Amy Huggins

Return to Florence Riefle Bahr's Introductory Page
 


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