Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Pennsyvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Washington Foyer
Art Museums have cut back on the postcards they sell in gift shops. This disturbs me because I've always enjoyed taking pieces of the collection home, either to display somewhere (usually where I write), to include in a scrapbook, or maybe to file away in my official postcard box. That box is a museum of places, art, and whimsy just waiting for me to revisit.

PAFA: The Rotunda
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) does sell postcards, ten for $5.00, and I was pleased to find some of my favorites from the Academy's collection of art by Americans.

Washington Foyer, detail

  • Daniel Ridgway Knight's (1839-1924) "Hailing the Ferry" (1888) was my favorite in my favorite room, the Henry S. McNeil gallery of landscapes. It's a rather large (64.5" x 83") oil painting showing two girls hailing a ferry by a river much the same way we'd hail a taxi at Broad and Cherry Streets in Philadelphia. What knocked me out about this painting was the exquisite detail of the girls' faced and clothing, realistic enough to pass for a photograph. Ridgway painted this landscape thirty years after he was a student at PAFA, but still too early suspect this work to be a mashup of oil paint and photograph.
  • "George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait)" (1796) by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) is one of the many familiar portraits that greet the visitor around almost every corner. You've seen this portrait of Washington, looking like he does on our dollar bill, standing on an Oriental rug in front of a fancy red-velvet-upholstered side chair, gesturing toward a drapey red tablecloth with a quill and inkpot on top and big books underneath. A red drape is pulled back revealing an American nature scene outside. Is that a Colonial-dressed male doll slouched against the column by the window? It seems Mr. President has been to a Colonial Williamsburg gift shop!
  • I just read James McBride's National-Book-Award-winning The Good Lord Bird last month, so my eyes were drawn to the modern but primitive "John Brown Going to His Hanging" (1942) by Horace Pippin (1888-1946). It's a somber scene with cold white and gray buildings, black trees that have lost most of their leaves, and faceless people clad in shades of black and charcoal. The only colors are the scarves around the people's necks and the ropes binding John Brown's arms to his body...until...you notice the scowling black woman down in the lower right, wearing a bright blue and white gingham skirt. She's the only black person in the painting, and none too happy about this execution. It turns out this is Pippin's own grumpy grandmother.
I didn't see a postcard of Benjamin West's (1738-1820) showstopper, "Christ Rejected," (1814). West was born in Springfield, which is now Swarthmore, and was one of the first American painters to win fame and respect outside of this country. This gigantic (200" x 260") painting was created near the end of West's life after he had been living in England for fifty-four years. Jane Austen looked at this very painting and said, "...it pleased me." That nugget of knowledge pleases me!

Looking from The Rotunda to the Washington Foyer
I wasn't allowed to shoot photos of the art (hence the links above--please click on them to see the art), but I was allowed to snap flashless photos of this glorious Frank Furness building from 1876. It's now called the Historic Landmark Building. (PAFA's newer, modern Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building is next door.) It's Victorian and Gothic and it represents Philadelphia and the Gilded Age. I didn't focus much on labels because I'd rather concentrate on focusing my Nikon.

PAFA exterior
PAFA puts their Mission ("PAFA promotes the transformative power of art and art making") on the free map along with the history of the Academy. Although the building didn't appear until 1876, the Academy was founded in 1805 by a group of Pennsylvanians including Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, and Benjamin Rush. It's the country's first art museum and school of fine arts, right here at Broad and Cherry Streets in Center City Philadelphia.

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