Art in Philadelphia
The history of art, particularly painting and sculpture, has been a long and distinguished one. If you add in the art schools, the Philadelphia national influence on artists has been a dominant one.
Conventions and Convention Centers
When you have a big convention center, some circus is always coming to town. Philadelphia has always been a convention town, has had and still has lots of convention sites, and hopes to have more of the kind of famous convention we have had in the past.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently had a special exhibition of paintings by Edouard Manet, with a heavy dose of Claude Monet plus a few others. A moment's reflection demonstrates the enormous undertaking it must be to assemble a hundred valuable paintings from 60 different museums and owners, arrange for permissions, negotiate insurance and shipping costs, debate the best display, lighting and arrangement, instruct the guides, print the brochures, hype the announcement hype, and probably a thousand other details of making this all come out right. Although a lot cheaper to assemble this show and move it around to various cities, than it would be to have thousands of Americans travel to Europe to see the paintings there, nevertheless it looks expensive. Half a dozen major foundations donated money for this effort, and the ticket price is not insignificant. When you are all done, however, you have seen a display that no one could possibly see privately, all in one afternoon, with an elegant lunch on the premises in air-conditioned splendor, accompanied by a small orchestral group in the background. The show is resident for three months, less two weeks for setup and travel, so four cities can collaborate on four traveling exhibits each year. Somewhere, there must be a very large staff devoting full time to keeping these exhibits in constant movement; probably several cycles are going at once. This is big business, and filling that big museum every day for three months implies that many of the visitors are from outside Philadelphia. After you go, at least you can tell Manet from Monet, you've had a taste of the huge Museum that makes you want to come back some day, and you have seen Philadelphia's best view, right where Rocky ran up the steps.
Our guide was well trained and entertaining, and knew all about horizons, prompting some deep, deep thought about horizons. The Dutch school of painters usually put the horizon down near the bottom of the painting, showing off the billowing grey clouds so characteristic of the European coast near the North Sea. By contrast, the French impressionists went down to the sunny Mediterranean coast, where the bright sunlight forces you to look down at the ground. So the horizon of painting, the line where the sky meets the ground, is low in northern paintings, but high in scenes of the Riviera, representing in both cases the typical viewer?s image of the scene. No doubt, some painters deliberately reversed the normal location of the horizon, in order to create the unconscious effect on the viewer that something was somehow wrong.
This little lesson has practical utility for those of us who take amateur snapshots. The rule for photographers is to throw the horizon into either the top third or the bottom third of the viewfinder. Avoid putting the dumb horizon right in the center of the photo. Since most cameras nowadays have an automatic exposure meter, if you get it wrong the meter will concentrate on the sky, underexpose the subject below the sky, and give you a puzzling black silhouette instead of a picture of your girlfriend.
Returning to the reality of the Art Museum, it sits on top of a little mountain --Fairer Mount-- that William Penn once considered as a place to put his home. It was later the site of a reservoir, with the famous pumping station and water works down the hill on the edge of the Schuylkill. Now, this Parthenon is an easy place to reach and to park, while the world's art is placed before you. The Russian Tsar in his Hermitage, and the Archduke in his Viennese palace never had it as easy as this.
Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019