Artist and art collector Edward Bruce was born in Dover Plains, N.Y. in 1879 and began painting landscapes at the age of fourteen. Although he continued to paint throughout his life, Bruce did not become a professional artist until he entered a rigorous six-year apprenticeship in Italy at the age of forty. Before his formal art training, Bruce had a successful law practice, specializing in international trade law in New York and Manila, in the Philippines. While in the Far East, Bruce collected dozens of Chinese landscape paintings that today form the core of the Asian collection at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum.
Returning to the United States in 1925, Bruce worked at his art without interruption and won national recognition in a surprisingly short time. In 1938 Harvard University conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Arts degree and in 1940 President Roosevelt appointed Bruce to the President’s Commission of Fine Arts.
Edward Bruce was the director of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and the Section of Painting and Sculpture, two New Deal relief efforts that provided work for artists in the United States during the Great Depression. Bruce had been a successful lawyer and entrepreneur before giving up his career altogether at the age of forty-three to become an artist. However, like most artists during the Depression, he found it impossible to make a living making art, and grudgingly returned to business in 1932 as a lobbyist in Washington for the Calamba Sugar Estate of San Francisco. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from the American painter George Biddle, who suggested a New Deal program that would hire artists to paint murals in federal office buildings. Roosevelt was intrigued by the idea, and brought the idea to the United States Treasury Department, which oversaw all construction of federal buildings. Bruce had by that time made some connections in Washington, and he was asked to help organize the effort.
The son of a minister, Bruce brought spiritual fervor to his landscapes—shafts of golden light break through dark clouds to creating a radiant aura. Bruce’s knowledge of the traditions of Chinese landscape painting is also evident, in his harmoniously composed landscapes, simplified forms, and atmospheric perspective.
Bruce received many honors and awards during his lifetime both for his work as an artist and for his capable and dedicated administration of federal arts programs. Despite poor health, he continued his work for the Section of Fine Arts until shortly before his death in 1943.