This is the second installment of Philly Love, a series of posts that highlight my favorite parts of a city I have called home for over a decade.
“You like the Impressionists? When you are in Paris, you must absolutely visit the Musée d’Orsay.”
Some of the first books I was given as a child were collections of the Impressionists. My mom has always liked Renoir, but my favorites would be Monet, Degas, and Van Gogh growing up. As I got older, I would discover more artists to love, like Sisley, Pisarro, and Manet. My first trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) was during high school with my French Class. We had a tour that focused on the French art throughout the museum, from a cloister courtyard, that was broken down, transported, and installed in the museum to the medieval and Christian art found in French churches, to the Impressionists and even more modern French artists.
I had Art History courses at Tyler School of Art, learned even more about this group of painters, but by the time I was in art school, I considered myself to have outgrown the Impressionists. At this time, I also was introduced to the Barnes Foundation, which was still located in Marion within an arboretum at the time. The Barnes collection does have some Impressionist art, but the real highlight is that it is the largest private collection of Post-Impressionist art in the world.
It wasn’t until my first trip to France, which is now 10 years past, that I realized how very spoiled I was. The Musée d’Orsay does have some great Impressionist paintings, but when I left, I felt somewhat underwhelmed. First world problems. So I did some asking around and investigating. It turns out that the PMA holds the largest collection of Impressionist art outside of France. Not everyone can walk into their local museum and see Monet’s Japanese Footbridge, or Degas’ ballerinas, or multiple landscapes from many other Impressionists.
I used to go to the PMA on Sundays, as every Sunday they used to offer free entry. (The PMA now offers pay what you wish on the first Sunday of the month.) I would sit and draw in any of the galleries. This is why when I go, I’m a fantastic tour guide, I know where all the most famous paintings are, but also the lesser known ones that are quite special. I also spent a great amount of time in the Arensberg’s collection, but that is another post altogether. I still believe Philadelphia’s art collection to be one of the most underrated aspects of this city. If I could tell every tourist that chooses to run up the “Rocky Stairs” that inside is a world class art collection, I would. It isn’t just a photo-op. How did all these French treasures end up in Philadelphia?
It turns out that Philadelphia was home to many collectors (too many to individually name here) and supporters of Impressionist art. It wasn’t only Philadelphia, the wealthy elites from New York and Boston also made trip to Paris, France to buy up the art that the Parisian Art World wasn’t yet ready to completely accept. Many of these collectors purchased paintings at extremely low prices by today’s standards and had them brought back to the United States. Later, many of these pieces were donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as when it was first built, it had many spacious and not yet filled galleries that were attractive to collectors to display their prized pieces. Albert Barnes of the aforementioned Barnes Collection is another one of these collectors, but his collection also deserves it’s own post.
In Philadelphia, in the 1920s, a decision was made to create a great space for art and culture in the country’s first capital. A Frenchman by the name of Paul Philippe Cret was hired to design a French style Avenue, with the landscape architect Jacques Gréber. In 1927 the Philadelphia Free Library opened, followed by the PMA in 1928, and then the Rodin Museum. The Rodin museum is the only museum dedicated to Rodin outside of France and features his life’s work – The Gates of Hell, or Les Portes d’Enfer, inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The bronze cast version in Philadelphia is one of three that were made at the time, the plaster original still in Paris, and one of seven in the whole world. Yes, another place worthy of a whole post.
One of my favorite pieces in the PMA is a piece that was created in Monet’s later years. He was going blind, but still wanted to paint, and although he couldn’t clearly see the palette, his favorite bridge, or the canvas, he painted until he died. The fervor and persistence of an artistic genius, exemplified, not far from his masterpieces.
Lastly, I would just like to remark that the collections are so extensive that you will not always see the same things. There used to be a room that was dedicated to just pastel drawings on paper done by several Impressionists but mostly, by Degas. I loved seeing sketches done by the famous artists, as it was a glimpse into their process, and the pastels seemed to glow as brightly as they did when they were first laid on the papers, jumping off the page, giving real life to the subjects. I leave you with one of my favorites, not currently on display.