The Pennsylvania Academy
of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
“Economies of scale” can denominate modest-sized as well as gargantuan enterprises. That is to say, not all advantages accrue to the big ones. I thought of this recently when visiting the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. This venerable institution bills itself alternately as “the oldest art school and museum of fine arts in the country” and “home to America’s artists.” (You almost expect a superscript ™ after those epithets, but it has not come to that, not yet.) The Pennsylvania Academy now occupies two buildings: a splendidly eccentric landmark structure by Frank Furness and George Hewitt (1876) and the “Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building,” a large but nondescript office building next door. Both have been renovated for the Academy’s 200th anniversary this year.
One of the first things to strike visitors to the Pennsylvania Academy—at least, one of the first things to strike those who start at the Frank Furness building—is how inviting the museum is. This is partly a function of size. The Academy is a small institution—like the Frick in New York, say, or the Gardner in Boston—and it has the advantage of intimacy. Then there is the architecture. One of the things we learn from this odd but seductive building—Michael Lewis, in Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (2001), described it as “a thirteenth-century Gothic arch on a seventeenth-century mansarded pavilion”—is that the most fetching exercises in postmodernism are pre-modernist. (When the term “postmodern” first hit, some people complained—not unjustly—that it didn’t make any sense: what, after all, was “post-modern” except “more modern”? So let’s not put too much weight on the idea of a “pre-modernist postmodernism.) This is a building that not only makes a good first impression—that crazy, polychromed façade is irresistible—but also has a terrific follow through. As Lewis notes, Furness was a genius at animating a building, giving it a sense of flow, movement, circulation, kinetic “draw.” In his effort to “overcome the inertness of stone architecture and make the building appear as a vital animate thing,” Lewis writes, Furness employed “the whole repertoire of expressive Greek devices—column contraction, supple moldings, stylobate curvature, and, above all, entasis.” The result is one of the most agreeably energized museum interiors I know.
The Pennsylvania Academy was founded at Independence Hall in 1805 by the artist Charles Willson Peale. It has two great claims to our attention. One is that it has never abandoned its life drawing classes, not even in the know-nothing, make-nothing decades of the 1960s and 1970s. (Several floors of the Hamilton building, the upper stories of which are still being renovated, will be given over to classrooms.) The other great asset of the Academy is its distinguished collection of American art, which has been handsomely rehung in a big exhibition called “In Full View: American Painting and Sculpture: 1720–2005,” which is on view until April 10. Painting pre-1945 is in the Furness building; everything else is next door.
There are a few gems in the Academy’s more recent holdings, but most of the real treasures are earlier works. In some cases, the interest is as much historical as aesthetic—I think of the large swath of wall space devoted to works by the Peale family, not just by Charles Willson but also by his brother and several of his seventeen children. But then there are splendid works by Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Eakins, William Glackens, Milton Avery, and Winslow Homer. The folk artist Edward Hicks (1780–1849), a Quaker minister, specialized in illustrating a verse from Isaiah (“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb …”) in more than sixty pictures with the title “The Peaceable Kingdom.” The Academy has an excellent example. It also has a marvelous late picture by George Inness (1825–1894), “Woodland Scene” (1891), which is full of the gauzy ineffabilities that give his best work its seductive power.
There are unappealing notes in the Academy’s anniversary rhetoric: a hankering after the trendy, the politically correct, the aesthetically nugatory. An exhibition of variously shaped, all-black surfaces by Quentin Morris, for example, manages to be both soporific and irritating. But the peeps of the academic avant-garde are a minor distraction in what is a powerful commemoration of some great American art exhibited in a masterpiece of American architecture.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 6, on page 45
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