by Jennifer Katz
Every museum houses a collection that defines it, and for Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum, that collection has been mostly hidden for many years. Still in his first year as director, Bill Valerio wanted to recreate both the Founder’s Room and the Parlor at the museum, reintroducing the public to some of the museums greatest works of art in a new setting.
“The idea is to show great works of art that haven’t been on view in a while in a way that allows people to have an experience,” Valerio said.
He chose to highlight pieces from the collection that showcase the museums’ ties to Chestnut Hill.
“In learning about Woodmere, I found out that it is really tied to a sense of place,” he said.
Charles Knox Smith, the founder and collector behind the Woodmere, who lived and showed his collection in the house that became the museum, was a former Philadelphia City Councilman. He worked his way up from his days as a poor boy from Kensington.
“He was a messenger for businesses which owned oil wells in Western Pennsylvania, and he somehow parlayed that into owning part of a well,” Valerio said.
Smith would purchase silver mines in Mexico, amassing a fortune before being elected to city government.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Smith purchased the 1840s house on six acres at the top of the hill. He built what is known today as the Cooke Gallery (the round room at the back of the museum situated a level below the first floor) to house his collection.
Smith opened the gallery on Thursdays for members (membership was obtained through connections to Smith himself). His collection reflected his personal and political philosophy and depicted the area and the country as it was then.
“His ambition was to collect art that represented his beliefs in God, in country and to uplift the spirit of man,” Valerio said.
To that end, Smith managed to acquire some of the country’s greatest works of art. The portrait of Eliza Payne Angersteen by Sir Thomas Lawrence that hangs prominently in the Founder’s Room now is one of Smith’s greatest acquisitions.
Angersteen’s husband was the founder of Lloyds of London. Their collection would become the National Gallery in London.
Benjamin West, a renowned American painter, was Eliza Angersteen’s art advisor. Influenced by her taste and prominence, Smith sought out and bought West’s “The Death of Phillip Sydney,” now hanging prominently on the far wall in the Founder’s Room. The painting depicts Sydney as a martyr in the civil war in England, a theme that can be found throughout Smith’s collection. He was an American Civil War buff, an abolitionist and a patriot.
For years there was a marble bust of Abraham Lincoln by Sarah Fisher Ames on a low table just to the left in the bay window of the Founder’s Room. Valerio was moved by Smith’s affinity for the slain president and the majesty of Ames’ work. He moved the bust to a pedestal and repositioned it in the center of the window.
“When I came here, it was in a corner,” he said. “You looked down on the head of Lincoln. It never seemed right.”
More importantly, the bust is one of five that Ames did of Lincoln from life.
“It’s a remarkable thing to have in Philadelphia,” he said. “It’s as close to Lincoln as you can get.”
Valerio’s goal in reinstalling the galleries is to showcase the collection in a way that allows visitors to experience the art and connect with it. The repositioning of important works of art, hanging informative labels to accompany the pieces and repainting the Parlor were part of creating a specific feeling about the collection.
“I wanted to give people a sense of the collection as grounded in a specific time – post Civil War Philadelphia.
“Smith really wanted to do something great for society,” he said. “And Chestnut Hill should be proud that it’s here.”
In the Parlor, Valerio chose to highlight several pieces from Smith’s collection that underscore his love of country.
“Smith was a devout Presbyterian and he believed that everyone found their way to God,” he said. “For him it was through nature.”
The museum staff renovated the Parlor’s display, changing the pictures, prominently displaying a masterpiece by Frederic Edwin Church and painting the room a golden color inspired by Church’s home, Olana, on the Hudson River. The room is now filled with other major Hudson River paintings, many of which have not been on display for years, including Edmund Darch Lewis’ “Katerskill Fall” and Jasper Francis Cropsey’s “Spirit of Peace,” whose partner painting, “Spirit of War” hangs in the national Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“The collection was not living up to its potential,” he said. “It’s my job is to make the most of it.”
The reinstalled galleries will open officially on April 3 along with two other new exhibits at the museum. In conjunction with the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, the museum will present “Charles Demuth in the City of Lights,” which explores the work of one of America’s greatest modernists, and “Violet Oakley and the Women Artists of Paris,” which offers an intimate look at the Philadelphia/Mt. Airy illustrator, muralist, and stained glass artist. For visitor information, call 215-247-0476 or visit www.woodmereartmuseum.org