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Friday, December 26, 2014

Pennsylvania Art

Appropriately for the day after Christmas, Edward Willis Redfield seems to have painted little else besides Christmassy winter scenes of the Pennsylvania landscape as seen in his Center Bridge Village Winter (1890s)
The Artist in His Museum,1822,
Charles Willson Peale
Next door, to the east of my home state of Ohio, lies the "Keystone" state of Pennsylvania. Insofar as art, painting in particular, is concerned, the state so far outshines Ohio we should install a giant curtain from Lake Erie to the Ohio River just to cut down on the glare. Inevitably, when we talk about Pennsylvania, not just in terms of art, but historically, economically, culturally, and probably a dozen other levels, the state is really more like two states, that is, eastern Pennsylvania and western Pennsylvania. Virtually the only factor joining them are the Pennsylvania Dutch in the middle. Eastern Pennsylvania is steeped in the cultural "runoff" of Europe, it's history, art, literature, and politics, derived from three centuries of English religion, customs, and law. The term "Philadelphia Lawyer," didn't come by accident. In the West, Pennsylvania art and culture derives from two related commodities--coal and steel. Add to this Erie on the lake and Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, and you have a manufacturing axis of wealth and culture some would insist to be the equal of the Philadelphia-Scranton phenomena in the east.

The Peale Family, 1771-73, Charles Willson Peale.
Jones & Laughlin Steel Works,
Pittsburgh (detail), 1956, Howard Fogg
While that may be true on many fronts, it's not the case with art. Art tends to thrive on old times and old money. An artistic culture takes time to develop and a pretty steady stream of cash as well. In the west, the invading white culture is barely two hundred years old. Moreover, excess wealth needed to support an art culture, is little more than a century old. In the west, not withstanding the Carnegies and the Mellons, most of the area's rich people drilled for oil, mined coal, and built steel mills (left) with their hard-earned dollars rather than squandering them on pretty stuff to hang on their walls. While the Carnegies and Mellons in the west collected art, in the east, art revolved primarily around two big name-families hard at work creating it--the Peales (above) and the Wyeth's (below).

Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth,
Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth
Wyeth family art.

Portrait of Charles Dikran Kelekian
Age 12, Mary Cassatt, not typical of her
usual mother and child paintings.
That's not to say that Pennsylvania art totally revolves around these two families. Add to the embarrassment of riches, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt (left), Andy Warhol (yes, Pittsburgh in the west produced a big-name artist or two), along with Edward Willis Redfield (top), Christopher Jenkins (below), Howard Fogg, Don Troiani (New York born but Philadelphia trained), Jasper Francis Cropsey, and present-day artist Sandi Wright, to name barely a few lesser-known but quite outstanding talents. As might be expected, there is also a definite dichotomy between east and west where content is concerned. The Philadelphia crowd like their portraits, which tend to codify their long, glorious family histories (some not as long or glorious as their portraits might suggest). In the West, it was all about industrial might, while in the middle, the emphasis was on placid rural life and three-hundred years of not-so-placid battles which have forged and shaped the state and the nation.

Pennsylvania Railroad on the Rockville Bridge, Christopher Jenkins
Few states owe so much to the advent of the railroad as does Pennsylvania; and as in other, similar states, this also plays into the state's art, as seen in Christopher Jenkins' Pennsylvania Railroad on the Rockville Bridge (above). Jasper Francis Cropsey emphasizes the broad, northeastern Pennsylvania landscape in his railroad painting of Starrucca Viaduct, (below, near Lanesboro, Pennsylvania) from 1865.
Starrucca Viaduct, Pennsylvania, 1865, Jasper Francis Cropsey
In 1988, my wife, son, and I joined my parents in attending the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in south-central Pennsylvania. There, over the July Fourth weekend, several hundred, perhaps several thousand (I didn't count), reenactors gathered to once more fight the "war between the states." The South lost again, even though they tended to be represented by greater numbers than the North. Video camera whirred (my own included), bugles sounded, cannon fired, horses clopped by and, unlike the original battle, no one seemed in much of a hurry in the dreadful heat of the July sun. It was like the battle was taking place in slow motion. Don Troiani captures much of the mad mayhem of battle I found so missing in the reenactment. His painting, Irish 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Philadelphia Brigade, Cemetery Ridge, July 3rd, 1863 (below) is one of many by Pennsylvania artists (he trained in Philadelphia but is actually from New York, now living in Connecticut), which captures, better than most, the dreadful carnage and confusion of battle during a time when firepower was beginning to eclipse manpower in the race to inflict death and destruction on the enemy as quickly and efficiently as inhumanly possible.

Irish 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers,  Philadelphia Brigade, Cemetery Ridge,
July 3rd 1863, Don Troiani  
Pennsylvania Dutch Market Day,
2012, Sandi Wright
A great deal of all this Pennsylvania art has to do with two architectural landmarks in Philadelphia. One is among the most graceful, classically beautiful in this country, the other undoubtedly the ugliest. The most beautiful is the Philadelphia Museum of Art (below, if you've ever seen the original Rocky movie, you've seen it). The latter is the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, (below, left) a multi-hued brick monstrosity, a relic from the "what were they thinking?" era of heavy-handed, mid-19th-century, American architecture (a term used very reluctantly in this case). Despite its desperately discordant appearance, the Pennsylvania Academy of Art should be considered on a par with New York's Art Students' League and the Art Institute of Chicago in having trained a tremendous number of the greatest artists the United States has ever produced. Nearly synonymous with this institution is the name, Thomas Eakins (bottom), one of the truly great academicians in this country's history. If only someone would design for the school a new façade.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art sprawls impressively on the hill behind Frederick Graff's attempt to encase the city's waterworks in a similar, Neo-classical style.
The Pennsylvania Academy of Art.
No state can claim to have an art culture if it is totally mired in the past. In the case of Pennsylvania, the art of the "here and now" is best seen in the art of the African-American community, which dominates Philadelphia's back streets and urban neighborhoods. The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program is the largest mural program in the nation. Since 1984, this effort has created more than 3,500 works of public art, earning Philadelphia international recognition as the “City of Murals” (below). Philadelphia's inner city art program works with more than a hundred urban neighborhoods each year in their transformation through the mural-making process, while award-winning, free art education programs serve hundreds of youth and at-risk teens at sites throughout the city. Mural Arts also employs adult offenders from local prisons and rehabilitation centers, allowing the restorative power of art to break the cycle of crime and violence in the local communities. Each year, more than 20,000 residents and visitors tour Mural Arts’ outdoor art gallery, now part of Philadelphia’s civic landscape and a source of pride and inspiration for the city.

Philly Mural Arts Program.
The Biglin Brothers Racing, 1877-78, Thomas Eakins.


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