Then and now, a center for contemporary art

PAFA presents Making American Artists: Stories from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 1776-1976

5 minute read
PAFA gallery view showing three almost life-sized, full-body portraits of women, mounted on a rust-covered wall.
A view of the Portraits gallery of ‘Making American Artists.’ (Photo by Adrian Cubillas.)

Making American Artists: Stories from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 1776-1976 is a very long title, but PAFA has a long history, and this expansive, recently opened exhibition celebrates its pivotal position in training and nurturing America’s visual artists.

Museum curator Anna Marley worked to tell a story of inclusion: an institution that from its earliest days has sought to train, gather, and display diverse contemporary artists. PAFA was founded in 1805 by painter Charles Willson Peale (the Peale family being everywhere on the colonial art scene) and sculptor William Rush. The men wanted to champion American art and artists at a time when Europeans were still shaping the visual culture in our newly formed nation.

Though there are plenty of “traditional” works here and in its collection, PAFA’s mission was, and remains, being a center for contemporary art. All the works in Making American Artists were created by people whose careers were shaped or influenced by their association with the institution. Not only is this exhibition major in scope, but it’s major in size. An impressive, somewhat overwhelming, 103 works are on view in two large, meandering galleries in PAFA’s Hamilton Building.

Divided into five sections (portraiture, history, still life, genre, and landscape), art is placed in proximity by subject matter, regardless of when it was created. The spread-out display means that each work can be both closely considered and yet contrasted with its thematic compatriots, and the curator’s non-chronological approach allows for thoughtful and thought-provoking juxtapositions.

Portraits, history, and still life

The first of these occurs in the section titled Portraits. Like each subject area, it’s filled with first-rate works by big names (William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri) and less familiar (Alice Barber Stephens, Dox Thrash). Packed with 37 works, this largest part of the exhibition opens with two strikingly contrasted portraits that set up the exhibition’s parallel themes of longevity and inclusivity: George Washington at Princeton (1779) by Charles Willson Peale and Brother James (1968) by James Brantley. Both towering in size and impact, like so many of the other hundred works on view, they captivate, making it a challenge to move onward.

PAFA gallery view showing Marsden Hartley’s Flower Abstraction, and Raymond Saunders’s La Chambre, on a gray-blue wall.
A view of the Still Life gallery of ‘Making American Artists.’ (Photo by Adrian Cubillas.)

History has 16 paintings, some familiar, some not. Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771-72) by Benjamin West is a massive work reproduced in history books, but the accompanying wall text notes its spurious claim to authenticity. This section also contains two powerful mid-20th-century oils: John Brown Going to His Hanging (1942), a late work by Pennsylvania artist Horace Pippin, and Alice Neel’s Investigation of Poverty at the Russell Sage Foundation (1933), a charitable organization founded in 1907 and still active today.

The beautiful Still Life section (13 works) highlights women’s contributions. Still life painting was (early on) considered “artistically appropriate” for women, with subject matter often close at hand. There are two luminous works by members of that ubiquitous colonial family: Strawberries and Cherries (c. 1813-1830) by Margaretta Angelica Peale and Fox Grapes and Peaches (1815) by Raphaelle Peale. It’s telling to note that while the gentleman’s painting is precisely documented, the time frame of Margaretta’s work is indeterminate. There are also riveting early 20th-century abstracts by Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keefe.

Genre and landscape

Each section carries a definition, and Genre reminds us that these 14 paintings depict “scenes of everyday life.” Sick-a-Bed (1916) by Elizabeth Okie Paxton and Baby on Mother’s Arm (c.1891) by Mary Cassatt may be in divergent styles, but both are gleaming with light. Paxton turned to genre painting to avoid competition with husband William McGregor Paxton, as she was thought by contemporaries to be the superior artist. There’s also June (1902), a beautiful work by Philadelphia’s Violet Oakley. And one of the exhibition’s masterpieces is In the Wash House (1888) by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, who donated it to the collection in 1890. Klumpke, the partner of Rosa Bonheur, was a leading presence in the Paris salons, and this was the first painting by a woman to win PAFA’s prestigious Temple Gold Medal.

PAFA gallery view showing five landscape paintings that vary in view and size, all in gold frames, on a rust-colored wall.
A view of the Landscape gallery of ‘Making American Artists.’ (Photo by Adrian Cubillas.)

Making American Artists ends with Landscape, its second-largest section (23 works), with views of both city and countryside ranging from Fairmount Water Works (1821) by Thomas Birch to John Sloan’s Jefferson Market (1917-1922) and Sonia Sekula’s The Rains (1949). The Hudson River from Fort Montgomery (1870) by David Johnson is a work of the Hudson River School, and though we think of that New York movement as the quintessence of 19th-century American landscapes, this exhibition posits that those painters’ outlook was formed here. It might be somewhat of a stretch to see Winslow Homer’s The Fox Hunt (1893) in this section, but it’s such a gorgeous work that it clearly had to be somewhere in the exhibition.

Plan to take your time

There’s a slate of public programs, including lectures and an interdisciplinary concert series (in February and March) co-presented by PAFA and World Café Live. And after it closes at PAFA, the exhibition has a massive travel schedule to six other national venues (including museums in Albuquerque and Tulsa) in a tour organized by the American Federation of the Arts.

Of course, there’s an additional half-century after the exhibition’s 1976 arbitrary ending date, but two centuries made for a nice round number ending with our bicentennial year. PAFA has received the National Medal of Arts, and as you can tell, this virtual course in American art history is packed with treasures from some of its most esteemed alumni. It’s not an exhibition you can breeze through, so plan to spend some time and reap its many visual rewards.

What, When, Where

Making American Artists: Stories from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1776-1976. Through April 2, 2023, at the Pennsylvania Academy for Fine Arts in the Harmon Building, 118-128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia. $10-$18; free for children under 12. (215) 972-7600 or


Masks not required in the museum.

Both museum buildings are wheelchair-accessible. Wheelchairs are available; personal care attendants are admitted free.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation