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Thursday, 22 October 2009

Philly's Artistic Patrimony

Gone Missing in New York

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
Have that sinking feeling when you've visited the American Art wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art lately? Like something is amiss?Gone missing, actually?

Yes, several of the collection's iconic pictures have been removed, and the museum has made its best effort -- for no good reason, it seems -- to conceal the fact. But not to worry. No skulduggery, along the lines of Jefferson University's fly-by-night deascension attempt of its Thomas Eakins masterpiece, The Gross Clinic.

I'm a frequent visitor to the first-floor gallery, and so I have an eye for how the collection, including the nation's largest aggregate by Eakins, is usually hung. In addition, sort of like getting a booster shot, I like to visit the collection, from to time, on an always well-informed docent-led tour.

I did the tour a few days ago, and I was certain our skilled guide would have announced -- rather proudly, if nothing else -- that Eakins' Between Rounds (1898-99), one of his ground-breaking pictures of boxing; and Seymour Joseph Guy's Making a Train (1867), a picture that to contemporary eyes combines an edgy mix of a girlish innocence and coquettish sexuality, are both now temporarily at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Instead of labels announcing the loans, a usual practice, the PMA just rearranged the wall-plan, 'papering over' the spots with other paintings from its vast permanent collection. The giveaway? Someone didn't do a very good job of plugging hook holes.

The Eakins and the Guy pictures actually are two of four paintings that the PMA has loaned to the Met for its current retrospective of largely 19th century American lifestyles, called 'American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915.' The exhibit, which opened this week (October 12), runs through January 24, and, significantly, it also shows an indebtedness to Philadelphia's artistic patrimony that's hard to miss.

Out of about 100 pictures in the show, eight, in all, are from Philadelphia. Those not from the PMA are, not surprisingly,from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, including PAFA's signature piece, Charles Willson Peale's The Artist in His Museum (1822).

Equally unsurprising is that the Met show, while hardly branded a
'blockbuster' in modern museum jargon, is a kindly nod to the pivotal role of early Philadelphia and its artists in shaping the vernacular of post colonial America art.

Only works drawn from The Met's own collection (about one third of the total displayed) supercede the combined strength of the Philadelphia contingent. And even gems like Eakins rowing picture The Champion Single Sculls (1871) from The Met collection; George Bellows' Club Night (1907) from the National Gallery of Art; or Mary Cassatt's Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), also from the National Gallery, could have come from Eakins, Bellow, and Cassatt inventories in Philadelphia if The Met's curators, led by H. Barbara Weinberg, had tweaked a subject or date.

Take, for example, Winslow Homer (1836-1910), the artist who probably is best represented with almost 10 works. None of these are from Philadelphia. But The Gulf Stream (1899), from The Met, introducing Homer's societal commentary -- the 'victimization' of American blacks, some say -- searingly reminded me of a similar scene I saw in a Homer at PAFA many years ago.

Pictures are evocative like that. I had always associated Homer with American scenes. But it was thanks to a friend, the Bahamanian artist Ricardo Knowles, a PAFA graduate who now lives in France, that I had learned about Homer's early Bahamanian settings -- and societal commentary.

Theodore Robinson's The Wedding March (1892), is another favorite -- and an old friend. Tucked in a gallery corner, the smallish oil on canvass commemorates the marriage of Claude Monet's stepdaughter in Giverny, where Monet himself lived at the time.

I first saw the picture -- an early example of American Impressionism -- at the Terra Foundation's satellite museum in Giverny a number of years ago, and I liked the picture well enough that I bought a copy in one of those tacky ersatz oils. I was told by a press person that the picture has been rehung at the Terra Foundation's main museum in Chicago. Hmmm?

Two of my favorite small museums are also represented in the show, the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, (Homer's The Gale) and The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (two works by Richard Caton Woodville).

Still, the Homer and Robinson pictures, those depicting Bahamanian and French scenes -- as well as other paintings, including two by John Singer Sargent, one In the Luxembourg Gardens (1879) from the PMA and An Interior in Venice (1899) from the Royal Academy of Arts -- got me wondering about the exhibit's true focus. Was this a retrospective of American stories  as depicted in American scenes or simply by American artists spanning 1765-1915?

If it were the former, the foreign scenes seemed out of place. If it were the later, an even more grievous curatorial faux pas was evident -- no sighting of the masterful Philadelphian and African American Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a PAFA graduate and an Eakins student.

One of Tanner's masterworks, The Annunciation (1898), is still hanging in the PMA's American wing. I checked. Actually, given Tanner's stature as an American artist and the seemingly loose definition of an 'American story' -- Tanner also worked abroad -- that the painting is still in Philadelphia is surprise enough. It should be at The Met show instead.

Also, don't count on the other Philadelphia works to be returned home anytime soon. 'American Stories' moves to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from February 28 to May 23.

And someone needs to plug the hook holes.