In a city with so many amazing art museums, why visit PAFA? #1: The amazing Victorian building designed by Philly’s Frank Furness:
#2: The chance to see a terrific collection of American art against this spectacular Victorian backdrop:
Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is the oldest art museum/art school in the United States. Established as a traditional arts academy – with the goals of educating artists, collecting, and exhibiting art, PAFA is several years younger than The Louvre, but older than both The National Gallery in London and The Prado. Founding members and teachers include the many of the most famous colonial-era artists, and works by these artists -Benjamin West, Charles Wilson Peale, Thomas Sully, Gilbert Stuart, and William Rush – anchor a terrific collection of early American masters.
Master realist and Philadelphian Thomas Eakins was both a student and teacher at PAFA – until he got kicked out for removing the loincloth of a male model during a figure drawing class with female students present – this was back in the era when classical statues had fig leafs strategically placed to protect female sensibilities (side note: Eakins was also very interested in photography, both as an art form and anatomical teaching tool. There are several existing photos of him posing nude both alone and with students).
In his defense, he wrote: “My figures at least are not a bunch of clothes with a head and hands sticking out but more nearly resemble the strong living bodies than most pictures show…. That I have but little patience with the false modesty which is the greatest enemy to all figure painting. I see no impropriety in looking at the most beautiful of Nature’s works, the naked figure. If there is impropriety, then just where does such impropriety begin? Is it wrong to look at a picture of a naked figure or at a statue? English ladies of the last generation thought so and avoided the statue galleries, but do so no longer. Or is it a question of sex? Should men make only the statues of men to be looked at by men, while the statues of women should be made by women to be looked at by women only? Should the he-painters draw the horses and bulls, and the she-painters like Rosa Bonheur the mares and cows? Must the poor old male body in the dissecting room be mutilated before Miss Prudery can dabble in his guts? … Such indignities anger me. Can not anyone see into what contemptible inconsistencies such follies all lead? And how dangerous they are? My conscience is clear, and my suffering is past.“
Although persona non grata for a time, today the museum has an extensive collection of Eakins’s works, both paintings and photography, including this very jolly looking portrait of Walt Whitman.
Other famous students and teachers included Mary Cassatt, Maxfield Parrish, Henry O. Tanner, Alexander Stirling Calder, Howard Pyle, William Glackens, and David Lynch (of Eraserhead and Twin Peaks fame). Other Academy alumni include Richard Watson and Walter Edmonds, whose Black Power murals decorate North Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate ().
The academy has collections of many of these former students, and continues to collect works by current students – as well as contemporary American artists, so there is always a diverse group of artworks on display (an adjacent building houses rotating contemporary exhibits). The museum has recently put on emphasis on collecting works by female artists.
They also have several works by one of my favorite Philadelphia-area artists, Horace Pippin, including one of his most famous: “John Brown Going to His Hanging”). Pippin was a WWI vet (honored for his bravery with the French croix de guerre), who served with the Harlem Hellfighters. After losing the use of his shoulder from a sniper bullet, he returned to the US where he taught himself to paint as a form of physical therapy and to help with his battle against depression. Many of his paintings deal with his experiences with segregation and the difficulties he faced finding employment after returning from Europe.
The Furness building, where the permanent exhibits are located, was built in 1876 and is the most outstanding example of the Philadelphia architect’s work. Furness’s style is much more substantial than the painted ladies of San Francisco, but no less ornate. Furness fans can visit some of his other over-the-top beauties: Fisher Fine Arts Library, which has a small, free art museum (University of Pennsylvania – photo ID required for entry):
Peck Alumni Center (Drexel University- open only occasionally to the public):
Undine Barge Club (Boathouse Row-interior closed to the public):
In addition to his buildings, Furness also designed furniture, such as this elaborate desk on display at The Philadelphia Museum of Art:
Field Trips: The museum offers trips focusing on both their permanent and special exhibitions. The also offer homeschool classes.