The Pergamon, Smithsonian, Louvre and British Museum, I have seen them all. But, nearer to home, in Philadelphia, there is a museum I have often heard about, but never visited. What a shame! So, on an unusually mild day in September, I decided to correct this inadvertent oversight.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is, not surprisingly, in Philadelphia, next to the Schuylkill river and adjacent to the Eakins Oval in a big swath of greenery within the confines of a major city. The large museum sits on top of an imposing flight of steps as seen from the eastern side. Unfortunately, the east gate was closed. Entrance was through the west gate at the back, just across from the parking garage on Anne d’Harnoncourt Drive. I was advised to bring the parking ticket to be validated at the museum. With validation, the price is 15 dollars for the day, the museum rate. Otherwise, it is much higher.
It took me an hour to drive to the museum. I leisurely walked over to the west entrance through the Sculpture Garden and entered the imposing Lenfest Hall. Security personnel checked my backpack and then I stood in line to buy a ticket. Online purchase is encouraged but walk ins are allowed. The first Sunday of each month is pay-what-you-like day. Ticket and a Map-cum-Guide in hand, I was ready for the tour.
First stop, the rest room, down a long curved flight of stairs. It had been a long drive through heavy I95 traffic. I next looked at my watch. Noon, time for refreshments. There was a small coffee shop in the basement with tables. I found an empty one, sat down with a sigh of relief as I fished out a banana and a granola bar from my backpack. I munched as I studied the museum guide. Refreshed, I headed for the stairs.
The building is best described as a large rectangle with one long side missing. It has three floors above ground and a new, redone basement. The galleries and exhibits are clearly marked. There is a massive flight of stairs in the center plus several large elevators. Strategically placed seats along the walls and inside the halls enabled visitors to rest and admire the many excellent exhibits. I made good use of these seats to shift the weight off my feet on occasion. It is a large museum that necessitates a lot of walking.
I walked up the central stairs admiring the gilded statue of Diana with her bow. I stopped at the second floor and turned right into the section on European Art 1850-1900 (Impressionism). I walked slowly admiring the many well-known paintings. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to enumerate all. I simply highlight a few that caught my eye.
I stopped in front of Sunflowers and took a deep breath. This was painted by Vincent Van Gogh from memory in the winter of 1889. I discovered there are several paintings of sunflowers by Van Gogh found in museums and private collections all over the world. This one had made it to Philadelphia. Lucky for us. He was enchanted by their vivid color and did a lot of experimenting with different shades and settings.
There were several paintings by Monet. I was particularly taken by the Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny. The Jardin d’Giverny was much loved by Monet and he did several paintings of his favorite garden. I looked closely at the scalloped brush stokes that brought the flowers and leaves to life. Indeed the work of a master painter!
I took a picture of Mademoiselle Legrand by Renoir. Who wouldn’t be charmed by the innocent face and rosy cheeks of the petite mademoiselle trying hard to look demure. Early on in his career Renoir’s impressionist paintings did not sell well and he did portraits to earn a few francs to survive. And now they are some of the most sought after paintings on earth. Amazing how tastes change. Some may call it fate.
I moved into the Hall of Modern and Contemporary Art and spent some time in front of the large painting titled Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso, the pioneer of Cubism. This very modern painting highlights his unique and forceful style.
I took to the stairs again and headed for the section on Asian Art on the third floor. I spent some time in the Pillared Temple Hall shown above. The granite pillars and carvings, some still amazingly intact, were from a temple in Madurai in southern India circa 1560. I sat on the cushioned seat listening to the soft strains of Indian raagas or devotional music as I looked around me imagining the mandapa of the ancient temple in times gone by. These items were purchased in 1912 when India was still under British rule. I wonder if this would be allowed today in independent India.
My next stop was in front of the statue of Brahma the Creator, another beautiful statue from India. Just marvel at the delicate workmanship and chiseled, meditative features of the Creator.
I moved on and came to Avalokiteshwar, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a statue from Thailand (above). Observe the broad facial features, elaborate chignon and the pencil mustache, characteristics of statues made during the Khmer Empire that ruled Southeast Asia a millennium back. Now look at the picture below of Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion from the Yuan dynasty, China.
Note the facial features and clothing, so very Chinese. The serene expression and relaxed pose gives an indication why Guanyin became a very popular and widely worshiped Buddhist deity in China.
One Bodhisattva, two countries, two different looks and features. As Buddhism made its way from India and spread across the world, it was adopted seamlessly into local customs and practices and as such easily became a part of everyday life in many countries.
I continued and came across a beautiful carving which made me halt in my tracks. I read the inscription, an intricately carved rhinoceros horn! It was big, about a foot long and about four inches in diameter at the base.
Enlarge the figure and observe the fine carving. The figurines are almost translucent. In the seventeenth century there was a brisk trade with China for such objects that pleased the eye. At the same time one cannot but think that a magnificent rhino gave its life for this specimen. Multiply this killing throughout the ages and you can see why rhinos, elephants and so many species are on the brink of extinction today.
I completed the Asian section and walked out to the Great Stair Hall. The walls were hung with several large tapestries woven from designs by Peter Paul Rubens and Pietro da Cortona highlighting scenes from the reign of Emperor Constantine of Constantinople. I slowly walked past them admiring the intricate weave and wondering how much labor and time it must have taken to do these.
I also stepped into the Arms and Armor gallery exhibiting arms and armor for men and horses. Museum curators must spend a lot of time keeping the metal polished. They shone. I wondered at the strength of the knights who donned these metal suits, mounted an armored horse and then rode off to battle swinging a broadsword or battle axe, also on display. I pitied the poor horse who had to carry all this weight and then be spurred on to gallop into a sea of sharp lances. Has mankind progressed from the middle ages? Perhaps. We are hopefully moving away from thinking of such animals as mere beasts of burden and more as fellow voyagers on planet earth.
By this time I was a little footsore and very hungry. I walked down to the cafe on the first floor. It had a good selection of hot and cold options. I chose a chicken wrap and soda, found a small vacant table and sat down. I looked around as I ate. There was a reasonable crowd, not packed, perhaps just right. Many parents had brought their children for a wonderful introduction to history and the arts. What a superb educative experience!
Next, I walked through the section on American Art which had an impressive collection of Native American artwork and colonial era paintings, furniture, dinnerware and bric-a-brac. I soon found myself back at the west entrance in Lenfest Hall, where I had started hours ago. Time to wrap up, I thought.
I stepped outside through the big glass doors. It was positively balmy. I strolled over to the front of the museum where I could see the pillars and the two giant wings of the building. I looked down the flight of steps and across the Eakins Oval to the iconic towers of downtown Philadelphia visible in the distance.
These stone stairs featured prominently in the movie “Rocky” where Sylvester Stallone ran up these steps as part of his training. Hence, they are now popularly known as the “Rocky Steps”. There is a statue of Rocky at the bottom with a line of people waiting to have their picture taken with their hero.
In the picture above you can see the back of the statue, gloved hands in the air. And the line of picture takers. I decided against climbing down the seventy two steps and back up again. My legs have had enough exercise for the day.
I walked back through the Sculpture Garden to the parking garage. I drove west along the Schuylkill River. I saw joggers, kids playing ball, mothers pushing strollers. I even saw a few sculls on the river, the oars dipping rhythmically. People were enjoying the last bit of summer before the nip of fall. In a short while I turned north and headed for home.
What a lovely day. I was so glad to have finally seen the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so tantalizingly close. You should see it too, if possible.