Discovered: La Salle's unsung art museum

The best art museum you never heard of

Scarborough: Who knew?
Scarborough: Who knew?

Curators can blunder, even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Such was the case early last year when the Met presented an ambitious retrospective of 19th-Century art that served up such usual Philadelphia suspects as Thomas Eakins, Charles Willson Peale and Winslow Homer but somehow overlooked the masterful African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a Pennsylvania Academy graduate and Eakins acolyte. Someone had dropped the ball.

That oversight is now about to be corrected, thanks to the Academy, with an important assist from the La Salle University Museum of Art.

Early next year the Academy will launch a gargantuan public meditation on the Tanner oeuvre. That bow to the long-neglected artist will be called "Modern Spirit," an exhibition accompanied by publications, lectures and even a children's book. The show will appear at the Academy from 28 January 28 to April 15 before soldiering on later in the year to the Cincinnati Art Museum and to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

In all, 114 objects will be installed in the Academy's Hamilton Building, involving works on paper, photographs and sculptures. The show-stoppers will include Tanner's perhaps most important work, The Annunciation (also from 1898), on loan from the Art Museum; and a far-flung entry, The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896), one of three from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Why, then, credit to the La Salle Museum? How about Mary (1898), a little-seen iconic Tanner oil that will surely be one of the show's highlights?

Coming-out party

It's the likely beginning of a newly-launched synergy between the La Salle Museum and Philadelphia's arts community, if not the world's: The LaSalle Museum has also loaned its Tomb of Virgil at Posilipo, Naples (1784), by the 18th-Century French academician Hubert Robert, to a current show at the Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy.

For most Philadelphians, these La Salle loans are less surprising than the news that La Salle University even has a free-access art museum at all— especially one with such world-class treasures as works by Edouard Vuillard, Rembrandt Peale, Georges Rouault, and, maybe most intriguing of all, Tintoretto's Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman.

La Salle also owns one of few small works in Philadelphia by the brilliant 20th-Century Anglo-American sculptor Joseph Epstein: a bust of his daughter Kitty Epstein. (The Art Museum has Epstein's mammoth Social Consciousness, a not-to-be-missed outdoor work on its West Terrace.)

In fact, La Salle's is the only permanent collection in Philadelphia, apart from the Art Museum's, that includes paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the Renaissance period to the contemporary. In other words, it's a smallish version of the Art Museum.

OK, real smallish. But even as that, who knew?

New director's mission


Klare Scarborough, the museum's newly-appointed director and chief curator (formerly a consultant and project manager at the University of Pennsylvania Museum), says turning La Salle's low profile around has been one of her principal missions. Getting the La Salle Museum on the world stage includes sharing the museum's patrimony with people who might never visit La Salle's campus off West Olney Avenue.

Fortunately, Scarborough's mission meshed with that of Anna Marley, the Pennsylvania Academy's curator of historical American art, who cast an uncharacteristically wide net— wide for the Academy, that is— in retelling Tanner's journey from interpreting black culture in his early work through his later reinvention in Paris as a Modern who combined realism and luminous light in technique with themes prompted by mystically-driven Orientalism.

Death foreshadowed?

Tanner's religious faith drew him to depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Thanks to funding from Rodman Wanamaker, a scion of the Philadelphia department store family, Tanner got to contextualize these Biblical scenes on-site with visits to the Middle East.

In Mary, the infant Jesus and his mother sit on the floor of an adobe hut, with the baby enveloped in swaddling. Mary gazes soulfully upon her child. The mood is somber. Is Tanner foreshadowing Jesus's death?

I can't help but think that Marley was really just itching to grab Mary for its artistic and narrative merits. This work, like The Annunciation, captures Tanner in his maturity.

Be forewarned: Finding the LaSalle Museum, located in the basement of a nondescript academic building, can involve a lively search. Which brings us to another Scarborough mission: Locating a new home for her museum.♦


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