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17 June 2012

Philadelphia Story

A recent trip to Philadelphia reminded me of what a wonderful community of artists exists there, adynamic and yet nurturing environment sustained in part by old institutions and new. Philadelphia was once the home of the first local chapter of Classical America, sponsored by the presence of architects Alvin Holm and John Blatteau; their presence was perhaps natural in a city that had produced such outstanding practitioners as Paul Cret and the firm of Mellor, Meigs and Howe, and still offers an urban fabric as harmonious and rich as any in America—it may be the closest our big cities get to a European scale and continuity, but achieved within a uniquely nuanced American grid.

Philadelphia was also the home of Thomas Eakins, and the great Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts that he nurtured and in many ways defined. Even if that venerable institution has recently sacrificed some of its grounding in the realist tradition, it still shelters rigorous teachers and artists like Patrick Connors. Patrick is also a member of the equally venerable, if quainter, Sketch Club—the oldest of its kind still in existence. I had the chance to see his show there, which would have made the club’s founders Eakins and Thomas Anshutz pleased. Indeed, Philadelphia is one of those few places in America where contemporary classicists and realists exist in something like an emulative relationship with their context, both contemporary and historical. In no small part because of the Pennsylvania Academy, Philadelphia sustained a realist camp through the twentieth century, and people like Martha Mayer Erlebacher and her husband Walter helped bridge the divide between ashcan realism and the modern renaissance of realism. Today there is a wealth of talent in Philadelphia alone, and these recent generations have both benefitted from that pedagogical continuity and contributed to it. Witness the dynamic Studio Icamminati (founded by Nelson Shanks and named after the Carracci’s academy in Bologna), whose teachers include Philadelphia native Stephen Early.

Patrick Connor’s landscapes lovingly depict many of the same subjects that attracted artists of Eakins’ day. Sites along the Schuylkill like the Waterworks and the numerous bridges speak to the allure of a landscape enriched by human intervention, and sustain artists attracted to their beauty and mutability across time and the seasons. Patrick is a scholar of Eakins’ theories, especially of perspective—which manifests itself in his carefully constructed views, many of which subtly modify the setting to achieve a particular compositional intent. But he is first and foremost a painter, and it is his painterliness that gives these studied views life and light.

I won’t say anything about the new Barnes Foundation (if you can’t say something nice…) but I will celebrate Cret’s Rodin Museum, one of America’s treasures and now in a literal tête-à-tête with its new neighbor. If someone in the City of Brotherly Love doesn’t make that point, then perhaps the classical architecture movement in Philadelphia isn’t what it once was; but at least the painters are alive and well.

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