Image credit: Katharine Steele Renninger (1925-2004), Morrell’s Spinning Wheel and Wool Winder, 1988, H. 17.625 x W. 23.625 inches, casein on linen canvas mounted on masonite, James A. Michener Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph L. Wesley, Sr., on the occasion of a tribute to George Ermentrout.

About the Artwork

Katharine Steele Renninger, a lifelong resident of Bucks County, was interested in capturing the culture and history of her community. In her series of paintings from the window of Morrell’s Antique Shop in Newtown, Pennsylvania, Morrell’s Spinning Wheel and Wool Winder shows a crowded window display filled with antiques. The antiques are layered with the reflection of windows from a building across the street that create a grid-like pattern of colors. The focal point of the busy composition is the large circle of a spinning wheel and the diamond shape of the wool winder. The objects are drawn in careful detail, but instead of realistic colors, Renninger shifts the color palette to tints and shades of the secondary colors orange, purple and green. She further distorts the image by flattening the space between objects and cropping out the window frame to make us question what is real and what is a reflection. Casein was applied to the linen canvas and then scrubbed away to create an interesting texture. The canvas was then mounted on a piece of sturdy masonite.

Looking Questions

  • Describe what you see in this painting. Create a list of all the details you can find.
  • Identify the focal point of the work. What draws your eye to this location?
  • What objects are part of the window display and what objects are from the reflection?
  • Where is the viewer standing? How do you know?
  • Where do you see patterns?
  • Find all the geometric and organic shapes in the painting.
  • How would you explain Renninger’s use of color?
  • Describe Renninger’s use of the paint on the canvas. How would you describe its texture?
  • Would you consider this painting realistic or abstract? Explain.
  • If you were going to give this painting a different title, what would you call it? Why?

About the Artist

Katharine Steele Renninger (1925-2004), born in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, made a career painting familiar places and objects found throughout Bucks County. She attended Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia and eventually joined its faculty. Renninger was influential in her community not only because of her art, but also because of her philanthropic efforts. She founded the Arts and Cultural Council of Bucks County and was a founding trustee of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA. She also worked with Bucks County public school districts to promote art in schools.

The majority of Renninger’s more than 800 paintings focused on inanimate objects such as places and objects. Although the paintings are devoid of people, we feel a sense of the character of the people that may have owned these items. She was inspired by geometric patterns made by the repetition of various architectural forms (windows, doors, railings) and common household objects (chairs, jars, quilts) that reflect her cultural heritage.

Renninger drew inspiration from different artistic styles, but she described herself as an “abstract realist.” The objects in her paintings are recognizable, but the use of colorful patterns, cropping and shallow depth, border on abstraction. She painted these objects as she found them instead of arranging them in the manner of still life artists. She worked mainly in a medium called casein, a fast-drying, milk-based paint that was used in ancient cave paintings. The water-soluble paint allowed her to rework and remove paint to reveal the texture of the canvas.


Visual Arts

  • Renninger painted the antiques as she saw them through a window. Find a subject that you have to look through something else to see and draw or paint it. Present your artwork to the class for a peer critique.
  • In your sketchbook, try drawing or painting a picture of reflective and/or clear objects like a mirror or glass. Still life objects can tell about the person who owned them.
  • Create a still life with objects that describe you and your personality. What items would you choose? Why? Write an artist statement to accompany your still life.
  • For younger students, read Still Life Stew by Helena Clare Pittman.

Art History

  • Renninger was inspired by the American Realists. Look at examples of work by Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth and Edward Hopper. Which artist’s style is most similar to Renninger’s? Write a paragraph explaining your opinion.
  • Casein was Renninger’s preferred medium. This medium was used for ancient cave paintings and more modern paintings such as The Scream by Expressionist painter Edvard Munch and several paintings by pop artist Andy Warhol. Research the history of casein. Experiment by painting with both casein and watercolor. Discuss the qualities of each.
  • After graduating, Renninger traveled abroad, where she was influenced by many European artists, including Paul Cézanne. Learn about Cézanne and choose one of his many still life paintings. Describe the similiarities and differences to Renninger’s painting. Explain which painting you prefer and why. Support your claim with at least three reasons.
  • Renninger’s Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors piqued her interest in handcrafted furniture and objects. Learn about Pennsylvania German Folk art and Fraktur. Create a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation sharing what you learned.

Language Arts

  • Renninger’s father was an engineer who taught her the importance of careful observation and accuracy. She made very detailed drawings and notes in her sketchbook: descriptions about design, color, light, functional information, and other precise observations. In your sketchbook, chose one or more objects to create thumbnail sketches and record descriptive notes.
  • Many of Renninger’s paintings depict places and objects important to the history and culture of her hometown. Write a paragraph about a place or object that represents your community. Explain why you chose this object. What does it tell us about the place where you live? Share your paragraph with the class.
  • Create a list poem on your own or with your class describing Renninger’s painting. Give your poem a creative title.
  • Write a fictional narrative about the person who might have owned one of these antiques. Who were they? Why was this object important to them? How did it ended up in the antique shop? Use evidence from the painting to support your reasons.

Social Studies/History

  • The spinning wheel has been used for centuries to spin yarn in many different cultures. Read about the history of the spinning wheel and about textile arts. What is Leonardo da Vinci’s connection to the spinning wheel?
  • Research your town’s local history to learn more about the important events that shaped where you lived. Create an interactive timeline to share with your classmates on Timeline.
  • Renninger was inspired by The Philadelphia Ten, a group of women artists from Philadelphia who exhibited together from 1917-1945. This progressive group of women sought camaraderie and support in a mostly male-dominated art world and included such noted Bucks County artists as Fern I. Coppedge and M. Elizabeth Price. Learn about important women in history and select one woman to research. Create a Popplet mind-map about this famous woman to share with the class.
  • Throughout her career, Renninger saw her hometown of Newtown, PA transform from farm to suburbs. Learn more about the historical background of this town. How old is it? Continue to research the differences between rural, urban and suburban communities. What kind of community do you live in? How is it similar or different from 50 years ago? Explain your answer.

Mathematics and Science

  • Renninger was inspired by the patterns and geometric shapes found in architecture and objects. Find examples of pattern throughout the painting. What geometric shapes do you see? The spinning wheel is divided into several even pieces as well as the windows and checkerboard game. Use these objects to practice fractions. Find the diameter of the spinning wheel.
  • Morrell’s Spinning Wheel shows the reflection of the building across the street. Why does glass reflect an image? How does it distort an image? What other objects reflect an image?
  • Renninger uses secondary colors in her painting. Experiment with color mixing to create purple, orange and green. Make predictions about what color will be made when you mix two different colors together or all three. Try varying the amount of colors you use when you mix the colors, adding more of one over the other. Continue to make variations by mixing white or black. Record your observations in your notebook.
  • For younger students, read Mix it Up by Herve Tullet.
  • Shadows in the painting are shown as big blocks of color. Experiment with light and shadow. If you shine a light on an object, where does it cast a shadow? What about a clear object like a glass? Why is a shadow dark? Create a composition demonstrating the use of shadows with opaque and transparent objects.
  • Mix your own milk paint by using lemon juice and skim milk. For older students, stir in 1/2 tsp of Borax once curds form. How do you explain the chemical reaction? Find the recipe here.

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