Monday, November 8, 2021

Viewing the Vast Collection of Works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

A few week's ago my husband and I set aside two hours to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Little did we know that we'd make it through half of the collection in that amount of time. Therefore, I recommend that you consider devoting about three to four hours to see everything. The good news is that the Museum features several cafes onsite where you can take a break, grab a bite and give your feet a rest.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was founded in 1876 and developed from collections exhibited in 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park. The building, constructed of Minnesota Dolomite and modeled after ancient Greek temples, opened its doors in 1928. 

Each year, the museum attracts approximately 800,000 visitors, with their website receiving 10 million page view annually. There are approximately 225,000 objects in the Museum, which features 15-20 special exhibitions each year.

For those who wish to reenact the Rocky scene by running up the 99 steps to get into the museum, I should note that the entrance is currently closed. I certainly didn't mind entering at the rear of the building, which is far less challenging to those of us who are out of shape.

Once inside, visitors will see the grand staircase and Saint-Gaudens' statue Diana. If it seems familiar, that might be because it was moved from New York's old Madison Square Garden.

Diana, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, faces the grand staircase.

Two of the first paintings we encountered were influential in the art world...eventually. The oil on canvas pictured below was painted by Thomas Eakin. Titled, The Gross Clinic, it depicts Dr. Samuel Gross of Philadelphia operating on a patient, with Eakin sketching in the background. It was created specifically for Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition, was rejected and instead appeared at a U.S. Army field hospital exhibit. The rejection prompted an art critic to comment in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph: "There is nothing so fine in the American section of the Art Department of the Exhibition and it is a great pity that the squeamishness of the Selection Committee compelled the artist to find the place in the United States Hospital Building." Perhaps he was onto something. Today, the painting is recognized as one of the "greatest American paintings ever made."

The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins, 1875.

The Agnew Clinic, Thomas Eakins, 1889

Years later, Eakins was commissioned by medical students to commemorate the retirement of Dr. D. Hayes Agnew of Philadelphia. The young students then modeled for the artist in his studio. The painting portrays a mastectomy, but, at the insistence of Agnew, is less bloody than The Gross Clinic. Once again, it received a cool reception by the public until it appeared at the Chicago World's Columbian Exhibition in 1893, alongside his previous work. The medal Eakins received in Chicago recognizing his artistic achievements was a turning point in his career.

Other American collections include extensive holdings of Pennsylvania art and furniture, like the walnut desk below, designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness to look like one of his buildings.

Horace Howard Furness Desk, 1871

Cabinet made by American Giuseppe Ferrari (born in Italy), 1874-76.

Pennsylvania has been home to many German immigrants over the years, so it stands to reason that German Americans are well represented at the The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Below is a wardrobe (Kleidershrank) decorated with the owners name Georg Huber and the date it was made in sulfur inlay, a process in which molten lava is poured into carved channels.
Wardrobe, 1779, Lancaster County

Another gorgeous item I saw was this elaborately carved mahogany wine cooler seen below, made between 1825 and 1830, artist unknown.

Mahogany wine cooler, 1825-1830

Wharton Esherick, a Philadelphia sculptor who worked primarily in wood, is responsible for the handsome fireplace shown below.

Wharton Esherick, 1935-38, made in Paoli, Pennsylvania.

Bedstead, 1825-1835, possibly made in Philadelphia.

Those who know me are aware that some of my favorite pieces of furniture are fainting couches (I own three). Below are a few that I saw at the museum.

Sofa, 1762, England

Additional American pieces that caught my eye are the ones shown below. The first one, painted by Daniel Huntington in 1858 is titled: The Counterfeit Note and shows a shopkeeper scrutinizing a bill while a woman whispers in his ear and gestures towards a shady guy standing behind them.
The Counterfeit Note, 1858, Daniel Huntington

The second painting by John Frederick Peto is of an object rarely seen today: the letter rack. The representation of the upside down Lincoln photograph is said to suggest the country's lingering melancholy over the Civil War and the president's assassination. 
Old Time Letter Rack, 1894, John Frederick Peto

What's remarkable about the painting below by Sanford Gifford titled: A Coming Storm is that it was painted in the midst of the Civil War and was first owned by Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln's assassin.
A Coming Storm, Sanford Gifford, 1863

Beautiful sculptures can be seen throughout the museum. Many of them have roots in Philadelphia, like this bronze created by William Rush. Originally carved in wood in 1809 for a fountain that stood in front of Philadelphia's first water system (where City Hall now stands), water spouted from the beak of the bittern, a bird that frequented the banks of the Schuylkill River. Officials, concerned about the deterioration of the original, ordered it cast in bronze in 1872 and moved it in 1829 to the new Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill River (next to the museum).

Allegory of the Schuylkill River (Water Nymph and Bittern), William Rush

The next piece is called "The Lost Pleiad," by Randolph Rogers, and is known as his last great mythological work. It represents Merope, who, in Greek legend, is one of seven sisters forming the Pleiades constellation. Having married a mortal, her powers weakened and she was lost from sight.
The Lost Pleiad, Randolph Rogers, 1874

The following is a sculpture done by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and memorializes Maria Gouverneur Mitchell, who died of diphtheria in 1898 in Philadelphia. Her parents commissioned the monument to represent her "singularly sweet and blameless life." It's named, The Angel of Purity.

The Angel of Purity, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1902

The museum also holds a collection of Presidential china used by presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan in the McNeil American Presidential China Gallery. My favorite collection was owned by Rutherford B. Hayes. You can see these unique pieces below.

China used during the Rutherford B. Hayes administration.

There are also walls of tapestries dating back to the 17th century, which are massive, depict historical scenes and are in surprisingly good condition.

Priceless Turkish rugs were also displayed on walls because of their size.  

Among the rugs was this beautiful Turkish cradle with mother-of-pearl inlay. It dates back to 1750 and was typically pressed into use when an Ottoman prince or princess was born.

Turkish Cradle, 1750

The European collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art include medieval sculpture, stained glass, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and more. Among the artists are Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas and Pissarro--pictures that I will be taking and sharing on this blog on a return visit.

The painting below stood out to me because it was painted by a female in 1639. Her name was Judith Leyster. The Dutch artist depicts two men drinking and a skeleton looming in the background. What's interesting about Judith is that prior to the 1800s, her paintings were misattributed to male artists until they discovered her initials with a star on her pieces. (Leyster is Dutch for lodestar.) 

The Last Drop, The Gay Cavalier, Judith Leyster, 1639.

The piece below was painted by Englishman Benjamin West titled: Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus
Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus, Benjamin West, 1770.

The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist, and Angels Holding the Instruments of Passion, Painted Oak, Belgium, 1460-1490.

The piece above, which appeared to be at least 20 feet tall, was made in Belgium and dates back to the 1400s. It is painted oak and originally stood over the entrance to the choir, or altar area of a church. 

Another huge religious piece is picture below and is hinged and painted on both sides. It depicts scenes from Jesus' life and the events of his final days on earth. Altarpieces like this one were produced by Antwerp craftsmen for the broad European market. The picture doesn't do it justice. 

I'll wrap things up with a few shots from the Chinese Gallery, an ongoing exhibit that spans 4,000 years. 

Guanyin Budhisattva of Compassion, Qiao Bin 1482-1507

The glazed stoneware above was created during the Ming Dynasty and depicts Guanyin above a serpentine dragon and mythical feline. Ink inscriptions on the side point to a Buddhist Temple in the Shanxi Province.
Seated Luohan, wood, 1500s to early 1600s.

The work above, titled, Seated Luohan, is wooden and is estimated to date from the 1500s to the early 1600s. Luohans are enlightened monks who are disciples of Buddha. These sculptures were placed in Buddhist halls in groups of 16 or 18 lining the walls on either sides.

That's about it for my current visit. I'll be returning to write another blog in the spring to cover the other half of the museum we missed touring due to time. Hopefully this whets your appetite enough to consider visiting yourself.

In the meantime, you can learn more about the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its collection, hours, entrance prices and more by visiting the website at