Do you have that sinking feeling when you've visited the American Art wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art lately? Like something is amiss? 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. There's no skullduggery along the lines of Jefferson University's fly-by-night de-accession attempt of its Thomas Eakins masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, in 2006.
I frequently visit the Art Museum's first-floor American gallery, often on one of the Museum's well-informed docent-led tours. For me, it's sort of like getting an occasional booster shot. So I've developed an eye for the way in which the American wing, which includes the nation's largest collection of Eakins works, is usually hung.
I took the tour a few days ago, and I was certain our skilled guide would have proudly announced that Eakins's Between Rounds (1898-99, above), one of his ground-breaking pictures of boxing, and Seymour Joseph Guy's Making a Train (1867), which combines an edgy mix of a girlish innocence and coquettish sexuality, are both now temporarily housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
But no. Instead of labels announcing the loans— the usual practice— the Art Museum just rearranged the wall-plan, papering over the empty spots with other paintings from its vast permanent collection.
The giveaway? Someone failed to do a thorough job of plugging hook holes.
Eight paintings from Philadelphia
In fact the Eakins and the Guy pictures are two of four paintings that the Art Museum has loaned to the Met for "American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915." Among other things, this Met exhibit reveals an indebtedness to Philadelphia's artistic patrimony that's hard to miss.
Out of about 100 pictures in the Met's show, eight are from Philadelphia. Those not from the Art Museum belong, not surprisingly, to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, including the Academy's signature piece, Charles Willson Peale's The Artist in His Museum (1822).
It's equally unsurprising that the Met show, while hardly a "blockbuster" in modern museum jargon, makes a kindly nod to the pivotal role of early Philadelphia artists in shaping the vernacular of post-colonial American 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 many of the exhibit's gems that didn't come from Philadelphia— like the Eakins rowing picture, The Champion Single Sculls (1871), from The Met collection; George Bellows's 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, Bellows and Cassatt inventories in Philadelphia if The Met's curators, led by H. Barbara Weinberg, had tweaked a subject or date.
Another side of Winslow Homer
Take, for example, Winslow Homer (1836-1910), probably the Met exhibit's best-represented artist, with almost ten 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 the Pennsylvania Academy many years ago.
Pictures are evocative like that. I had always associated Homer with American scenes. But thanks to a friend, the Bahamian artist Ricardo Knowles, a Pennsylvania Academy graduate who now lives in France, I learned about Homer's early Bahamian settings, as well as Homer's and societal commentary.
Robinson at Giverny
Theodore Robinson's The Wedding March (1892), is another favorite— and an old friend, too. 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 this 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. Robinson taught briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy before his untimely death in 1896. A Met press person told me 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, Mass. (Homer's The Gale), and The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (two works by Richard Caton Woodville).
Left behind: Henry Tanner
Still, the Homer and Robinson pictures, those depicting Bahamian and French scenes— as well as other paintings, including two by John Singer Sargent, one, In the Luxembourg Gardens (1879), from the Pennsylvania Academy, and An Interior in Venice (1899), from the Royal Academy of Arts— got me wondering about the Met exhibit's true focus. Was this a retrospective of American stories as depicted in American scenes? Or simply works by American artists spanning 1765-1915?
If it were the former, the foreign scenes seemed out of place. If it were the latter, an even more grievous curatorial faux pas was evident: the absence of the masterful Philadelphian and African-American Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a Pennsylvania Academy graduate and an Eakins student.
One of Tanner's masterworks, The Annunciation (1898), still hangs in the Art Museum's American wing. I checked. Actually, given Tanner's stature as an American artist and the Met's seemingly loose definition of an "American story"— Tanner also worked abroad— I'm surprised that the painting is still in Philadelphia. It should be at The Met show instead.
If I've whetted your appetite, 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.
Meanwhile, someone at the Art Museum needs to plug the hook holes.