Philadelphia Area Art Excursions

It’s an orgy for art lovers in the greater Philadelphia region this summer – and closer to Paris than you might think

Philadelphia is being called the center of the art world this summer, with the opening of the new Barnes Foundation and the re-opening of the Rodin Museum. Instead of booking a week in Paris, visitors are coming to Philadelphia for its great number of Cezannes, Matisses and Renoirs.

Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the one-mile tree-lined boulevard stretching from City Hall to the iconic “Rocky” steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is the address for these museums as well as the Academy of Natural Sciences, Moore College of Art, the Franklin Institute and the Free Library. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is just the other side of William Penn’s statue atop City Hall.

Designed in 1917 by French urban planner Jacque Greber to be the Champs Elysee of Philadelphia, the Parkway makes the City of Brotherly Love a close cousin to the City of Light. The tree-lined roadway itself is an outdoor sculpture garden, with works by Calder, Moore and Robert Indiana, among others.

Argyrol. A compound of protein and silver, the antiseptic was used to treat gonorrhea, as well as relieve nasal congestion. Most of us know of Argyrol because the chemist who developed it, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, went on to put together one of the greatest art collections in the world from the fortune he amassed: 181 Renoirs (more than any other collection in the world), 69 Cezannes (more than in the Louvre), 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 21 Soutines, 18 Rousseaus, 16 Modiglianis, as well as African sculpture, Native American Jewelry, sculpture from Mexico, Pennsylvania German furniture and so much more.

In reviewing my notes taken at the Barnes press preview, I see “Matisse orgy” scrawled in the margin. Dr. Barnes, I love what you did with your money!

(I will not go into the controversy surrounding the moving of the Barnes to the Parkway, but for a humorous commentary, visit the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., exhibiting To Stir, Inform and Inflame: The Art of Tony Auth, through October 21. Auth takes Matisse’s dancers, commissioned for the lunettes in the Barnes’ previous space in Merion, and has them boogying to Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” Full disclosure: This writer works in public relations at the Michener, and while it would be a conflict of interest to include the Michener in this story, it also should not be slighted as a summer art destination: http://www.michenerartmuseum.org)

Born in 1872 in working class Philadelphia, the highly intelligent and motivated Barnes graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical school at age 20 and studied chemistry in Germany before his legendary invention. With his wife, Laura Leggett of Brooklyn, he built a home in Merion dubbed “Lauraston.”

Barnes famously gave his workers a two-hour seminar every day on William James, George Santayana and John Dewey and showed them original art. Have taken post-graduate philosophy with Dewey at Columbia University, Barnes was inspired by his theories of learning by doing. He wanted to enrich the lives of the common man through art appreciation, his “experiment in education,” as he called it.

The painter William Glackens was a Central High School classmate, and Barnes sent him to Paris with $20,000 in 1912 to scout the galleries. Glackens had embraced a light, colorful palette that stood apart from the darker tones used by his peers, and was at the forefront of modern art. Glackens returned with 33 paintings including several Renoirs, a Cezanne, Gauguin’s “Haere Pape” and Picasso’s “Young Woman Holding a Cigarette,” becoming the  cornerstone of the Barnes collection.

In 1922, the multimillionaire bought a 12-acre arboretum down the road from Lauraston and established the Barnes Foundation as an educational institution dedicated to promoting the appreciation of fine art and horticulture. He hired architect Paul Philippe Cret to design a residence and gallery on the arboretum grounds. His intended audience was factory and shop workers, poor and disenfranchised people, African-Americans and young artists. His method: to have them experience original works of art, participate in discussion, read key texts, and study the use of color, line, light and space. Not only would they learn about art, he reasoned, but they would develop critical thinking and the ability to learn and succeed in general, becoming more productive participants in a democratic society.

The new building on the Parkway, designed by Tod Williams (Princeton University Class of 1965, 1967) and Billie Tsien Architects (their firm designed both Taplin Auditorium and Fineberg Hall on the Princeton University campus), includes a dedicated space for changing exhibitions.

Ensemble: Albert C. Barnes and the Experiment in Education traces the roots of his education theory through rarely seen historical photographs, letters, manuscripts and press clippings.The title comes, of course, from his eccentric method of hanging artwork, salon style, in the original Merion home: mixing modern painters with metal works, Native American pottery, African sculpture, Pennsylvania furniture. The exhibit explores how these ensembles, or dense groupings, are expressions of Barnes’s pedagogical beliefs.

State-of-the-art lighting and glass on the windows allow the paintings to be seen in a way they never have before, yet protect them from damaging rays. If art is your religion, this is a fine place to worship.

Here on the Parkway the interior galleries have been re-created to the millimeter, though the exterior is completely new and modern, and amenities such as a café and shop are on the lower level, along with restrooms and a library that is open to the public. In the center is an enormous court, where docents and teachers can gather groups. The space, lit with natural light from above, has a restaurant and can also be used for special events, seating 250. And an auditorium, with 150 cognac leather seats, provides ample space for lectures and films.

The walls are made of a gray stone that has been chiseled to resemble cuneiform text, making the space look timeless and contemporary at once.

If you can tear yourself away from all those Matisses, take a moment to look down at the floor in the Light Court. It is made from ipe, a Brazilian walnut reclaimed from boardwalks at Coney Island. “The new space needed a durable floor that was also warm and inviting,” note the architects. The boards reputedly offer that clean-dirty look, and although I didn’t get down to sniff it, supposedly you can still smell ocean when it’s wet.

The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. www.barnesfoundation.org

From the Barnes, cross the street to visit the newly re-opened Rodin Museum, walking through the Meudon Gate. It was modeled after the 18th-century façade at Château d’Issy, which Rodin had installed at his home at Meudon, France, and has become a significant feature on the Parkway. The stone gate has been cleaned to remove vehicular grime and pollution, and its large French wrought-iron gates, fashioned in Paris in 1926-7, were restored.

Once inside the gate, you have entered a serene world, where blooming lavender spills into a reflecting pool. A stone head spews water into a scalloped fountain that flows into the larger pool.

Both the Beaux Arts building and the Meudon Gate of the Rodin Museum were designed by Paul Cret, who designed the original Barnes in Merion, and the original gardens were designed by Parkway designer Jacques Greber.

Movie theater magnate Jules Mastbaum bought his first Rodin at the Musee Rodin in Paris in 1923, “joining a minority of Rodin fans,” says Joseph Rishel, curator of the Rodin Museum. (Rodin’s popularity waned after his death in 1917 but was revived in the 1950s.) In three years Mastbaum had amassed the largest Rodin collection outside Paris, and commissioned Cret and Greber to design the museum as a gift to the city of Philadelphia. Mastbaum wanted to unite his two passions: Rodin and Philadelphia. Sadly, Mastbaum died before it opened.

The building was created with the sculpture in mind, with space for each work in the collection. Over the years, many of the outdoor sculptures were moved indoors, but new conservation innovations made it possible for the sculpture to be moved outside once again.

The three-year restoration returns the museum to its 1929 design, and reinstalls and reinterprets the collection.

“This was long overdue,” says Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which administers the Rodin Museum. “This great site had lost some of its luster and needed to be brought back to life to complement the Barnes opening. It was an act of stewardship, bringing back one of the city’s great cultural assets.”

Within the refurbished galleries, the inaugural installation of the collection is dedicated to The Gates of Hell.

In 1880 Rodin received a commission to create The Gates of Hell. He spent 37 years working on it, and many of his sculptures started on The Gates before taking on a life of their own. The artist’s most famous work, “TheThinker,” which faces the Benjamin Franklin Parkway before the Meudon Gate, was also conceived as part of The Gates of Hell and was later enlarged and cast in bronze as an independent work.

Mastbaum paid for the first two bronze casts of Rodin’s Gates, the earliest of which has stood in the museum’s portico since 1929.  He ordered the casts in 1925, eight years after the artist’s death, and presented the second cast to the Musée Rodin in Paris.

“When we began to consider how to reinstall the galleries, I wanted the sculptures that were placed by Cret in key positions on the exterior of the museum and in the garden to be once again outdoors,” said Rub. “’The Burghers of Calais’ is too large a work to fit comfortably within the galleries, and after returning this heroic work to its commanding place in the east garden, it seemed only fair to return ‘The Kiss’ to its place in the main gallery, where it could finally delight the public once again.”

Rodin Museum, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street, Philadelphia. www.rodinmuseum.org

Francophiles and art lovers, the fun continues at Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia is on view through September 3. You can take a complimentary trolley from the Rodin Museum to the PMA.

Arcadia is a dream, a mythic place of beauty and repose where humankind lives in harmony with nature. Such a vision has held appeal for artists since antiquity. With its promise of calm, simplicity, and order, it has served as both an inspiration and as refuge, a place that is distant and protected from the harsh realities of life.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the dream of Arcadia spurred the imagination of painters who led the way toward modern art.

Think dangling grapes and Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” (In fact, you can listen to the piece on the audio tour while viewing the exhibit.) The symphonic poem was inspired by Stephane Mallarme’s poem  Afternoon of a Faun, and here we see Matisse’s etchings of a creature half man, half goat to illustrate these works that marked the beginning of modernism.

A cliché verre (glass print) by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot shows a lone young shepherd piping to his flock. Corot was said to have been “nursed on the laps of nymphs” and influenced Gauguin, Cezanne and Matisse.

“Summer” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes is a window to a classical past, painted in soft pastel-like tones, depicting women and children bathing, draped and lying on white cloths. Curator Joseph Rishel speaks of the “nature of harmony and balance to sustain civilization.” This type of art was in huge demand for civic buildings in France.

Paul Signac depicts a perfect society in which working people enjoy their Sunday leisure as much as they enjoy labor in his study for “In the Time of Anarchy.” A man picks fruit, lovers read and play with their child, a painter sets up an easel by the shore and people dance in a circle under the shade of a tree. Modern leisure is paired with the timeless —  pastoral land, nymphs and bathers lolling by a serene body of water — in Seurat’s “Island of La Grande Jatte,” a study for “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

Henri Rousseau’s “The Dream,” on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, fits right in here, with its moonlit jungle in which a woman reclines on a red velvet sofa that looks to have escaped from a bourgeois Parisian apartment. “Arcadia is not always joyful bliss,” says Rishel. “It can be the jungles of imagination.” Rousseau, as we know, never actually went to the jungle but used paintings at the Louvre for reference material to create his dreamlike tropical lands.

Of all the artists represented, Gauguin reached the furthest in his pursuit of a place of Arcadian harmony and sensual delight. ”Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” is his largest and most ambitious work. Unlike Rousseau, he actually did leave Paris for the Polynesian island of Tahiti, seeking utopia. His was a troubled Arcadia, with spirits of the dead watching. He juxtaposed the mysterious figures with beautiful decorative figures. His painting doesn’t answer the questions of the title, it provokes them. Hanging in the Vollard Gallery, it was probably seen by Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne.

Cezanne’s large bathers, a gathering of nude figures in a glade of trees, was made at the end of his life. He was returning to his favorite subject matter, and was interested in gods and mortals in an Arcadian land where death remains an undercurrent, according to Rishel.

Gauguin, who owned six Cezannes, wrote that Cezanne spends his days on a mountaintop looking at the sky. Matisse, who owned one of the bathers, called Cezanne the “father of us all.”

Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse: Visions of Arcadia is on view at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street, Philadelphia, through September 3. www.philamuseum.org

After viewing all this bucolia, you may be seeking an idyllic retreat of your own. At three times the size of New York’s Central Park, Duke Farms in Hillsborough is New Jersey’s own Arcadia.

In May, after a $45 million facelift, Duke Farms opened its new orientation center, offering greater public access to the core area of almost 1,000 acres of the property. Its mission: to teach us to be good stewards of the earth.

There are 18 miles of walking trails, 12 miles of bike trails, and a tram with stops at the Old Foundation, Orchid Range and Great Meadow. Duke Farms offers four miles of paved paths that are wheelchair accessible and stroller-friendly.

Thanks to habitat restoration, grassland birds such as the bobolink, Savannah sparrow and Eastern meadowlark can be sighted here. Snapper turtles and flying squirrels have returned, and native witch hazel and sassafras have been reintroduced.

Visitors can cool off in the orientation center, an adaptive reuse of the 22,000-square-foot farm barn, and learn about the history.

There is no admission charge, but there is a fee to attend programs such as Birding by Bicycle August 4 ($15), Native Seed Collection August 16 ($20) or Wonderful Wetlands August 18 ($15).

Duke Farms, 1112 Duke Parkway West, Hillsborough. www.dukefarms.org

George Nakashima (1905-1990) was aware of the beauty of imperfection in nature. Using butterfly joints, his repairs accentuated the splits and cracks, calling attention to the naturally formed fissures through which the wood speaks.

Considered one of America’s foremost furniture designers, Nakashima was known for his respect for the relationship between man and tree. He published his ideas in The Soul of a Tree in 1981, a woodworker’s reflections on listening to the wood.

“The love for the nature of teak and walnut can best be obtained by working with the material; by cutting, planing, scraping and sanding the wood,” wrote Nakashima, whose love for the forms and spirit of the natural world evolved in the Pacific Northwest of his childhood. “The hours spent by the true craftsman in bringing out the grain, which has long been imprisoned in the trunk of the tree, are themselves an act of creation. He passes his hand over the satiny texture and finds God within.”

Surrounded by the sweet smell of locust trees in bloom and the bass baritone of the bull frogs, Nakashima’s New Hope, Pa., studio is run today by his daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall. Amid the bucolia, craftsmen and draftswomen are busy sanding and polishing burled wood, tweaking drawings, even refinishing some of the furniture from the last half of the 20th century.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service in 2008, this working studio is open the public Saturdays for self-guided tours. There are guided tours August 4 and October 6, and a tour through the Michener Art Museum October 13.

Nakashima Woodworker Studio, 1847 Aquetong Road, New Hope, Pa. www.nakashimawoodworker.com

Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, a National Historic Landmark, is maintained as a “working history” museum. Handmade tiles are still produced in a manner similar to that developed by the pottery’s founder and builder, Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), a major proponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement in America.

Mercer was a Renaissance man. Harvard educated, he was a historian, archaeologist, lawyer, anthropologist, architect, collector, ceramist and businessman.

Today he is probably best known for the three buildings he designed in his hometown of Doylestown – Font Hill, the 44-room castle-like structure that served as his home and is now a museum; the Mercer Museum, a six-story concrete castle to house his vast collection of early American objects and tools; and Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, the working museum, also castle-like, that once housed the factory for his hand-crafted tile business. All three buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After a three-year stint as curator of American and prehistoric archaeology at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1890s, Mercer saw a jumble of old agricultural tools and household utensils for sale and realized how quickly American pre-industrial history was being destroyed by modernization. He rummaged bake-ovens, wagon-houses, cellars, haylofts, smoke houses and chimney-corners for his collection.

After collecting pre-industrial tools, he rebelled against the machine age and embraced the hand-wrought work of the Arts & Crafts style. Fearing Pennsylvania-German ceramics were dying out, he established a studio, India House, on his family’s estate.

He became frustrated with his own attempts at pottery, and in his disappointment came to believe he could best perpetuate Pennsylvania-German ceramic traditions by manufacturing tiles.

The museum can be visited throughout the year, with self-guided tours every half hour. Tour goers will be enchanted by the Spanish Mission architecture, the use of Mercer tiles throughout, a video about the history of the creator, and a peek at ceramists at work.

Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, 130 East Swamp Road, Doylestown, Pa. http://www.buckscounty.org/government/departments/tileworks/

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