Florence Riefle Bahr
A prolific and professional artist, Florence Riefle Bahr portrayed significant events in Maryland and national political history for the century during which she lived.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Mrs. Bahr graduated with top honors from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1931. In a family of musicians who considered the Peabody Conservatory and the Lyric as their adopted homes, she was the only visual artist, and she was determined to succeed at it. In 1935 she was invited to exhibit her works at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and by 1937 Mrs. Bahr won the first of several awards for her works exhibited there. She was accepted as a member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, and one of her oil portraits, “Lily,” was exhibited at the Associations annual show in New York.
Often saying that she would rather paint than eat, Mrs. Bahr was seldom without her sketchbook, using it to record thousands of images. Her sketches of civil rights and peace marches and demonstrations, of the trial of Catonsville Nine, and of the trial of former Governor Marvin Mandel, are lively and colorful portrayals of meaningful events in American life. Her dismay at the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King drover her back to her studio where she poured her emotions into one of her most remarkable works, the powerful Homage to Martin Luther King. Shortly before her death, she donated this work to the NAACP to be hung in its national headquarters in Baltimore.
Before it was acceptable to do so in the Baltimore area, Mrs. Bahr supported civil rights for all citizens. She was active in and often used her artistic talents to support many groups working for women’s rights, peace, education, better health and housing conditions for low-income families, and improvements of conditions for prisoners. During the turbulent 1960’s Mrs. Bahr joined hundreds of other citizens, many younger than her own children, in protests against the Vietnam War and was arrested during one protest at the Pentagon. She was also active with groups advocating for the welfare of prisoners, both at home and in Central and Latin America. A mother of three, she adored children; she not only assisted with several Baltimore City breakfast programs for low income children, but she relentlessly wrote letters and made phone calls to elected officials on every level as a passionate advocate for children around the world. She believed in our political system and encouraged others to get involved to make Maryland and the world a better place.
Mrs. Bahr exemplified the value of lifelong learning. In 1967, she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art, providing an example for many women who returned to school for further training in the next decade. She never stopped striving for excellence in her work.
A doll collector all her life, she owned her own doll museum in Ellicott City, and enjoyed educating visitors about the roll of dolls in portraying social and cultural history.
At the age of 87, she was honored with a retrospective exhibit of her work in Peabody Galleria Piccola. At this exhibit, her family and friends saw many of her works, including her watercolors and sketches, for the first time. Regarding her work as a state treasure, the Maryland State Archives has preserved and catalogued for future generations between 300 and 400 of her sketches and paintings. The Archives’ staff was instrumental in salvaging many more of Bahr’s work from the disastrous fire in her home and studio which claimed her life.
Mrs. Bahr could be described as a “Renaissance woman,” a woman who had diverse interest and expertise in a number of areas; prolific artist, feminist, environmentalist, activist, and role model for future female leaders.