Ten pictures you shouldn’t miss at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

In Philadelphia on business last week, this art museum junkie was able to spend a pleasant afternoon at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he found the usual tourists posing for souvenir photos at the top of the famous steps in triumphal “Rocky” poses. Unfortunately for the photos, most of this fine building is temporarily covered with scaffolding (even more than in this 2007 shot).

Inside, the collection is as rewarding as ever, but can’t be seen all in a day. If you have a chance to visit, Emsworth offers a modest list of ten pictures at this museum that he wouldn’t want his friends to miss.

1. Interior (Edgar Degas). Never mind the famous paintings of ballet rehearsals and nudes getting into their baths — this melodramatic 1868 painting is the Degas that appeals to me most. There’s a story here, but what is it?

The room, with its old-fashioned wallpaper, looks like a set from a play. The painting has been subtitled The Rape, as if the impassive man has just taken from the unfortunate, half-dressed woman something she can never get back. Is this a pictoral re-telling of the story of Amnon (son of King David), who tricked and raped his half-sister Tamar? “Then Amnon hated her exceedingly; so that the hatred wherewith he hated her was greater than the love wherewith he had loved her.” 2 Samuel 13:15 (KJV). But what to make of the oddly lit jewelry box on the table in the middle of the room?

2. Rhetoricians at a Window (Jan Steen). Even without a Rembrandt or a Vermeer, the collection of Dutch and Flemish old masters at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is outstanding. It includes at least half a dozen marvelous genre paintings by the Dutchman Jan Steen, of which Rhetoricians at a Window, painted in 1661, is my favorite by an eyelash. Most of these portray working-class citizens in everyday activities, although one illustrates the Exodus scene of Moses striking the rock in anger to get water for the Israelites.

3. A Temperance Meeting (Homer). But Dutch genre paintings have nothing on American genre paintings. The Dutch peasant with the cup in Steen’s painting isn’t drinking milk, but the American farmboy in Winslow Homer’s scene, painted in 1874, is.

4. Christ Bearing the Cross (Murillo). The Gospel of John tells us that, after his trial, Jesus was forced to carry his own cross to Calvary, where he was to be executed by crucifixion. In this large picture by the great Spanish master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Jesus meets his mother Mary and kneels to rest, with his cross on his shoulder. Mary holds out her hands as if to ask Jesus whether he truly must give up his life, a conversation she surely had with her son long before his arrest at Passover. Jesus confirms his mission with an expressive look.

Murillo’s picture is not a literal portrayal of the scene on the road to Calvary, because Jesus was guarded and whipped along by His tormentors on his way to Calvary, and it seems unlikely that they left Him alone for a private moment with His mother. Its meaning is, I think, figurative. Jesus surely knew long before his arrest that He had been sent to yield up His life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind, and in a real sense He was carrying the cross throughout the years of His ministry. None of the many works of art with Christian themes in the Philadelphia Museum of Art will speak more movingly to believers than this 1665 picture.

5. Pont Neuf, Afternoon Sunshine (Pissarro). The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a spectacular collection of French impressionist paintings, but the sheer pleasure afforded by this heavily textured view of the most famous of the Paris bridges that cross the Seine is unmatched. Every part of this 1901 painting, from the colorful wagons and figures on the bridge to the fantastical greens and mauves of the river itself, is a sensual treat. To my great disappointment, it was not on the gallery walls during my mid-July 2008 visit.

6. Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (Duchamp). This cubist painting made a stir when it was first exhibited nearly a century ago (in 1914), but it’s not at all salacious. In fact, it’s difficult to find the nude subject of this monochromatic painting at all, let alone identify any particular parts of her anatomy. Nude Descending a Staircase may be the best-known cubist painting in the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an excellent collection of other cubist works, especially by Picasso, Leger, and Juan Gris.

The museum has devoted an entire gallery to Marcel Duchamp. What a sad case study is his career! Some early paintings by Duchamp in the gallery, in what might be considered a post-impressionist style, show his exceptional talent. These include, for example, a fine portrait of his father. But Duchamp was caught up in the rapidly changing artistic and intellectual movements of the day. First, in a cubist phase, as represented by Nude Descending a Staircase, he abandoned representational art. Then, perhaps finding that celebrity and notoriety suited him more than artistic achievement, Duchamp abandoned his discipline altogether. He gave up painting, bought a bicycle wheel, mounted it on a pedestal, and announced that it was art.

Gratified with the attention, Duchamp repeated the trick over the years with a urinal, a comb, and other objects, a number of which are exhibited in this gallery. Remarkably, people took these stunts seriously; apparently some still do. The gallery chronicles Duchamp’s fall. The visitor will marvel at a century of public gullibility.

7. William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuykill River (Thomas Eakins). In the shadows, the famous sculptor chips away at his masterpiece. Neither Rush nor the elderly chaperone look at the nude model, who holds a box on her shoulder to help hold her pose. The model’s clothing, laid on a chair, is by far the brightest part of the painting.

8. The Large Bathers (Cezanne). It’s the picture that’s large (83 by 93 inches), not the bathers. Cezanne painted three versions of The Large Bathers, one in the London’s National Gallery, one at the Barnes Foundation, in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, and this 1906 work, which is the finest of the three.

Paul Cezanne’s masterpiece can be seen 50 yards away down the long gallery lined with impressionist masterpieces that leads to the circular fountain court gallery.

9. The Rialto (Sargent). If Emsworth ever visits Venice, it will be because of John Singer Sargent’s evocative paintings of scenes from that city.

Visitors to the Philadelphia museum who want to see all the Sargents are led a merry chase. The curators have hung The Rialto among the works of late 19th-century European, presumably for no other reason than that it is a European scene. Portrait of Lady Eden is in the same gallery, presumably because the subject was British. But other Sargent paintings, including several fine portraits and a strikingly modern late landscape, are found among the works of his fellow Americans.

10. Mademoiselle Yvonne Landsberg (Matisse). In 1914, while Picasso and Braque were painting the same Cubist painting over and over again, Henri Matisse was using art’s new-found freedom to paint this unique portrait. As an afficionado, Emsworth was frustrated no end to find on his recent visit to Philadelphia (July 2008) that hardly anything by Matisse was on the walls.

These are not necessarily the finest or the most famous paintings in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I have not forgotten Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Rubens’s Prometheus Unbound, Renoir’s Large Bathers, Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, or Monet’s Japanese Footbridge and Lily Pool. But you’d see them anyway.

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