A Late Summer's Day Visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art
An Art Eyewitness Essay
April 2, 2022 was a noteworthy day in the art world. It was Slow Art Day.
This special day, usually celebrated on the second Saturday of April, is dedicated to adjusting the pace at which we race through art galleries. Slow down. Take time to appreciate and enjoy the works of art which museum curators work so diligently to present to us. What's the rush?
I missed Slow Art Day this year, I'm embarrassed to report. I can't recall what I was doing on April 2, but I made-up for it a few days later.
On April 7, I took part in a press preview of a wonderful retrospective of paintings and prints by Sean Scully at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Mr. Scully graciously analyzed key works and answered questions with great good humor. It was truly enlightening to spend an unhurried hour or so with him - and his works of art.
Taking a note from that wonderful experience, I decided to extend the close attention to the general collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) which normally I reserve for special exhibitions.
My wife, Anne, and I live in Philadelphia. With so many exhibits to cover for Art Eyewitness, there is always the temptation to wait and study local treasures at a later date. We are just a bus ride away from the PMA. We can always come back, in a week, in a month ...
If the Covid-19 lockdowns have taught art lovers one thing, it is to never take museums and galleries for granted.
Our plan was to head for the third floor of the museum, via the imposing staircase graced by Augustus Saint-Gaudens' statue of the goddess, Diana. This gilded lady once served as the weathervane atop the original Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Dangling overhead is Ghost, a mobile made by Alexander Calder in 1964 for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.
Before we began our climb, we decided to check-in with two "friends" on the main floor of the museum, Madame Cézanne and Mary Cassatt.
There are different strategies of how to explore a museum. Anne and I often begin by paying our "respects" to the three portraits of Madame Cézanne at the PMA and to the works by Mary Cassatt at the museum.
Madame Cézanne is in a notably dour mood in these three portraits by her husband. In the center one, however, Madame Cézanne has such a compelling look in her eyes that she seems about to favor us with a nod, if not a smile.
There is a really important point here, one that slowing down and making repeated visits to a favorite painting makes easier to grasp.
Great works of art possess a sense of possibility, a charge of potential energy. Madame Cézanne will never change, never smile. But these great portraits invite our close study and emotional engagement. This in turn triggers our thoughts and awareness. And we change, maybe even smile, too.
In the case of Mary Cassatt, I especially cherish her magnificent 1879 painting, Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge. But, for quite awhile, I failed to give it the attention it deserved. I thought that the elegant young woman (the model is thought to have been Cassatt's sister, Lydia) is turning in her seat to greet companions as they enter the loge.
Not so. Look again and we see the back of the young woman's head reflected in a mirror. Reflected too, are other opera fans, in loges or opera boxes on the other side of the theater. Why on earth would a mirror have been placed in the confined space of an opera box? Was this an artistic device of Cassatt's?
After a bit of research, I found that the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Europe's oldest opera house, has mirrors in its loges. Each is set at an incline to offer a glimpse of what is occurring in the Royal Box. I would assume that loges at the Paris Opera were similarly equipped in Cassatt's day. Yet, the inclusion of a mirror in Cassatt's painting has more to do, I suspect, with the subject of optics than with celebrity snooping.
In Woman in a Loge, Cassatt depicted her protagonist as if we could look directly at her, as she sits in the loge. But the reflections of the audience in the opera boxes across the way show how she would appear to them. The beaming young woman is a singular person, a special "someone" with grace and charm. Yet, seen from the opposite side of the theater, she is a face in the crowd.
That may be a sobering thought, but a few moment's of meditation before a great painting or sculpture can help us assess our place in the universe. Each of us is a unique individual, one soul among many, many millions of souls.
To apply the same level of attention to all the works on view in a museum, that we have accorded to Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, is clearly impossible. So how to proceed, having paid our respects to Madame Cezanne and Miss Cassatt?
"Festina lente," as the Roman emperor, Augustus, said. Make haste, slowly.
Several art museum studies have shown that many visitors follow the first part of Augustus' advice. In 2001, the Metropolitan Museum of Art conducted a survey which found that the average time spent looking at a work of art was 27.2 seconds. Fifteen years later, the Art Institute of Chicago repeated the experiment. The findings were similar: 28.6 seconds.
Luckily, the Philadelphia Museum of Art put some serious thought into how to present its collection. When it opened in 1927, the museum's first director, Fiske Kimball, worked on a master plan to transform the third floor into a chronological succession of galleries and period rooms.
Fiske Kimball's initiative was eventually crowned with success. Today, we can visit the splendid galleries which he and his team installed. These include the Reception Hall from a Ming Dynasty palace, early 1600's, and the Pillared Hall from a South Indian temple to Vishnu, dating to the 1500's. The sculptures and fixtures comprising this incredible gallery were acquired by an intrepid Philadelphia lady, Adeline Pepper Gibson, during a trip to India in the early 1900's and bequeathed to the PMA.
Fiske Kimball was notably successful with evoking the religious faith of Christendom during the Middle Ages. Since I discussed the medieval galleries of the PMA in a recent review, Anne and I decided to devote most of our late summer day's visit to the European galleries and period rooms of later centuries.
This historical era, the early modern age, is the time when the "Old Master" painters flourished. Thanks to collectors like John G. Johnson, the PMA certainly has its share of Old Master works of art. One of my favorites is Rembrandt's Head of Christ. Rembrandt used a model from Amsterdam's Jewish population to evoke the face of Jesus, thus promoting greater religious sensitivity.
In our tour of these early modern galleries, Anne and I were especially interested in the work of "anonymous." Despite the fame of Rembrandt, Rubens and other titans of brush and oils, unknown artisans active in the folk tradition of their respective countries created inspirational works of art.
The settings of the early galleries in this wing of the PMA deal with Italy and Spain during the 1500's and 1600's. These are unexpectedly austere from the standpoint of material culture, though well provided with religious art.
This period was the High Renaissance and the Golden Age of Spain. Yet the living standards of the great mass of citizens in Italy and Spain were blighted by endless wars, galloping inflation and dreadful outbreaks of the plague. The obsessive - to us - emphasis on art dealing with the sufferings of Jesus and the saints was embraced by the people of that era rather than imposed upon them.
And yet, there were displays of humor in those hard times and a sense of mischief which could border on irreverence. Comic elements are surely to be seen in some of the carvings on a pair of walnut doors made in Spain, 1550-1600, and on a stone fireplace created in Italy around the same time.
The identity of the maker of these handsome Spanish doors is a mystery. It is likely that the doors come from Castile, in central Spain, but beyond that, little is known about them. All of the decorative motifs are inspired by the Roman Catholic form of Christianity espoused by the Spanish monarchy of Philip II. Close inspection of the carving, however, reveals a sense of mirth which could have been explained away to all but the most suspicious officials of the Inquisition.
At the top of the doors, we see an officious-looking Angel Gabriel barging into the room of the Virgin Mary who is poised to flee. The look of alarm on the faces of cherubs above and other details, such as St. Peter with his enormous set of keys, belong to the European folk art tradition which left many traces of wit and humor on the decoration of churches and cathedrals.
In the case of the Italian chimney piece, it is not difficult to grasp how the shadows cast by its carved faces can generate a sense of fantasy and drama.
The Chimneypiece obviously had a great deal of use. Standing before it today, we can visualize how the dancing, darting flames would have projected the flickering faces of jesters and mythical characters around the room on a winter's night.
More carvings in the European folk tradition appear further on in the 1500-1850 galleries. Three of these works feature in a story of incredible coincidence or of the intervention by divine providence, depending on your point-of-view.
Three sculptures, choir screen, altarpiece and statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, form an ensemble from the Chapel of the Chateau of Pagny, the Renaissance-era estate of the Admiral of France, Philippe Chabot de Brion, located in Burgundy.
The Chateau Pagny's Choir Screen, made from marble and alabaster, 1536-38, was acquired by the PMA in 1930. It was - and remains - one of the most significant works of art in the Museum's collection.
The Choir Screen extended across the nave of the chapel, purposely shielding the altar and the sacred ritual of the Christian Mass from the gaze of the congregation. This arcane practice is hard for even faithful Christians to grasp today, given the emphasis on openness and participation. Yet, during 1500's-1600's, the concept of the altar as a sanctuary or "holy of holies" was of central importance to Roman Catholics.
The spectacular gilded, carved Altarpiece, now placed behind the Pagny Choir Screen was purchased fifteen years later. And that is where the story gets really interesting..
Fiske Kimball and his team of PMA curators purchased the altarpiece in 1945. They did so on the likelihood that it was similar to the one in the Pagny Chapel, of which all trace had been lost. Incredibly, after diligent research into the provenance of this magnificent work, they discovered that it was the actual altarpiece which had been sited behind the Choir Screen of the Chapel of Pagny, just as we see it today.
I don't know what is the mathematical probability of reuniting the long-separated Choir Screen and Altarpiece, but the author of the Handbook to the PMA's collection is absolutely correct to use the word "miraculously" to describe the whole transaction.
The third of the artworks from the chapel of the Chateau of Pagny is a tall, slender sculpture, Virgin and Child beneath a Canopy. Measuring 14 feet 5 1/4 inches in height, it presented a considerable challenge for Anne to get a photo. Luckily, many of the most interesting details of this work - certainly from the European folk art tradition - were down at the bottom, almost at eye level.
There we see several carved heads and two small figures.The heads look-out from little niches, their faces a mix of agitation or incredulity. Who are they? Souls in Purgatory awaiting redemption? Or perhaps, could they be self-portraits of the stone carvers who made the statue? For now, it is mystery. But considering how much we now know about these splendid sculptures, it is not impossible that one day we will learn their identity.
As we proceed with our tour through the European period rooms and galleries, 1500-1850, we see fewer and fewer religious paintings and a diminishing number of quirky, rough-hewn works by artisans of the old school. Occasionally, craft genius asserted itself with demonstrations of individualism and skill. But unforgettable works in the folk art tradition such as a wrought iron flagstaff holder from Italy, made in the 1500's, were increasingly pushed to the margins by the "fine" arts.
In the place of the culture of Christendom and folk tradition, what we observe is the growth of secular society in the West.
The relegation of religion to the realm of the private conscience brought many benefits, but it spawned problems, too. A growing spiritual malaise among the aristocrats and gentry in Great Britain was noted as the eighteenth century progressed. Shockingly, not a few clergyman in England grew lax in their spiritual duties, as well.
The reconstruction of period rooms such as the Grand Salon from the Chateau de Draveil or the Drawing Room of Lansdowne House brought the polished elegance of 18th century France and England to the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. To transfer the fixtures, mirrors, woodwork, furnishings, etc., and reassemble them in the Philadelphia Museum of Art was indeed a mighty accomplishment, worthy of the Age of Enlightenment.
In 1938, as Fiske Kimball worked on his master plan, four magnificent statues from the eighteenth century were donated to the PMA. They had come onto the art market in 1922, with little information about their provenance. Each statue depicted one of the seasons of the year in the guise of a Roman god or goddess, Autumn as Bacchus, for instance.
At the time of their arrival at the museum, the Four Seasons were attributed to the sculptor, Augustin Pajou (1730–1809), one the masters of that era. This claim is disputed today, but the fact that Pajou was credited shows how superbly carved they are..
Today, the statues stand, slightly over-life sized, in Gallery 366. This, for the most part, is a fine placement for viewing them, but the gallery also functions as busy corridor. I can't imagine the times I've walked through on my way to another gallery, without paying attention to these Enlightenment -era masterpieces.
On the day of our "Slow Art" tour of the 1500-1850 galleries, Anne and I did stop to look at the Four Seasons. Or rather, we were stopped in our tracks by the sheer excellence of these statues.
Each of the Four Seasons is an allegorical figure but exudes real human feeling. Look at Saturn, huddled in his robe and you cannot help but believe that he feels the cold of Winter coming on.
Each of the Four Seasons inhabits a natural setting, made believable by incredible attention to detail, the chipped and scaling bark on the stump by the foot of Bacchus, the stalks of grain, billowing in the wind at the leg of Ceres.
If you stand awhile in Gallery 366, you will see the shadows cast by the statues on the walls, looming large, looking like the souls of the statues and of the seasons they represent.
Each of the Four Seasons is an individual being, a real person rather than a type.
These Four Seasons are incomparable works, regardless of who carved them. They live in a universe of stone, ready for our summons to spring to life.
But that call to action will have to wait. Our world was summoning us. It was time for us to leave.
Plenty of great art to enjoy on our next tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art! Plenty to think about and appreciate from this visit.
It's amazing what you see when you slow down - and look.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved
All photographed works of art are from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Ed Voves, Photo (2022) Sean Scully & Timothy Rub, President/CEO of the Philadelpha Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Exterior view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Diana, 1892-94.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Alexander Calder, Ghost, 1964.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Portrait of Madame Cézanne by Paul Cézanne, 1885-1886. Oil on canvas: 24 3/8 × 20 1/8 inches. The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Mary Cassatt's Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879. Oil on canvas: 32 × 23 1/2 inches (81.3 × 59.7 cm) Bequest of Charlotte Dorrance Wright, 1978.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with works by Claude Monet.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of Altarpiece with Scenes of the Passion,from the Chapel at the Château of Pagny :c. 1535. Artist unknown, perhaps from the workshop of Master of the Oplinter Altarpiece, (Flemish) Gilded and painted wood sculptures; tempera-painted panels: Height: 9 feet 8 inches (294.6 cm) Width (Wings closed): 7 feet 6 inches (228.6 cm). Purchased with Museum funds from the George Grey Barnard Collection, 1945
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Virgin and Child beneath a Canopy from the Château of Pagny, 1533. Stone:Height:14 feet 5 1/4 inches. Purchased with funds contributed by Mrs. Charles Wolcott Henry from the Edmond Foulc Collection, 1930.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Flagstaff Holder in the Form of a Dragon, Italy, 16th century. Wrought iron: 24 x 7 x 18 inches: Purchased with Philadelphia Museum of Art Funds from the George Grey Barnard Collection, 1945
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Vicar and Moses, c. 1782-1795. Made in the factory of Ralph Wood II, Staffordshire. Lead-glazed earthenware: 9 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches. Gift of Charlotte Zeitlin in memory of David E. Zeitlin, 1999
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Grand Salon from the Chateau de Draveil, 1735. Purchased with Philadelphia Museum of Art Funds.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Drawing Room from Lansdowne House, designed by Robert Adam, c. 1766-1775. Gift of Graeme Lorimer and Sarah Moss Lorimer in memory of George Horace Lorimer, 1931
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gallery 366, showing two of the Four Seasons statues by an unknown artist, 1770-1790. From left, Winter as Saturn, Stone: 6 feet 7 1/2 inches × 27 1/4 inches; Autumn as Bacchus, Stone: 6 feet 7 1/2 inches × 27 1/4 inches.
The other Four Seasons statues are Flora as Spring, 7 feet 1 1/2 inches × 27 1/4 inches and Ceres as Summer, 7 feet 1 1/2 inches × 27 1/4 inches.
Gift of Eva Roberts Stotesbury in memory of Edward T. Stotesbury, 1938.