“View of Philadelphia” by James Hamilton

by William R. Valerio

This month, I had planned to write about Woodmere Art Museum’s historic Parlor and Founder’s Galleries and the renovation and revitalization project we just completed. Thanks to a recent Chestnut Hill Local article about the renovation, however, I’m glad to have been preempted.

I would only add with great pride that Woodmere was just awarded a Grand Jury Prize by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia for the restoration, which we completed in the summer of 2012, thanks to a grant from the William B. Dietrich Foundation. The endorsement and vetting of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society played a significant role in our success, and we express our gratitude to everyone who contributed to the project.

In addition to the restoration itself, Woodmere has recently added a new work of art to the Founder’s Galleries, and it is an exciting one: James Hamilton’s large and impressive “View of Philadelphia” (c. 1870). Before describing the painting, I will here provide a bit of background to describe how Woodmere “thinks” when we consider acquiring new works of art:

Charles Knox Smith, Woodmere’s founder, collected paintings by the great marine artists of 19th-century Philadelphia; currently on view are early-19th-century painter Thomas Birch’s “On a Rocky Coast” (c. 1830) as well as late-19th-century painter Franklin Briscoe’s “Off Cape Cod” (c. 1880), a gift to Woodmere from Chestnut Hill resident Patsy Walsh.

Woodmere’s collection, however, lacked a major seascape from the middle of the 19th century to link the generations of artists and give a fuller sense of the evolution of the seascape genre. To the 19th-century imagination, a ship on the sea could be a metaphor of the nation floating in the stream of history.

With the enormous transformation wrought by the Civil War, artists of the middle of the century often expressed that sense of anticipation and change. I would add that, in general, museums seek works of art with an elusive quality we describe as “wall power,” or the power of a work of art to capture attention and command a room.

As fortune would have it, a 10-out-of-10 painting materialized at Freeman’s auction house last spring – and, subsequently, we brought it to Woodmere: Hamilton’s “View of Philadelphia.” Hamilton was considered a leading seascape painter of his time, and his work packs excitement. In fact, he was known as “America’s Turner” because his dramatic imagination and bold painterliness seemed to rival that of the great English painter of the Romantic era, J.M.W. Turner.

Many historic buildings can be identified in “View of Philadelphia,” including the Sparks Shot Tower, which was used to manufacture musket bullets for both the War of 1812 and for the Union army during the Civil War. Then, on the right side of the painting, the white spire of Christ Church is visible. Constructed in 1744, the nearly-200-foot-spire was the tallest structure in the United States during most of Hamilton’s lifetime, and it was a primary landmark for those sailing along the Delaware.

What makes “View of Philadelphia” so stirring is not only our ability to recognize elements of the cityscape that remain familiar more than 140 years later, but also the agitated atmosphere of the natural elements. A stormy sky moves across the Philadelphia harbor, and lightning strikes. Waves are high, and Hamilton captures an illusion of light passing through the crests of waves and the specific green-brown color of the turbulent water of the harbor.

I also like the fact that we are only beginning to develop an understanding of the painting and that we know we have more to learn. For example, we have not been able to identify the flag on the large ship at right caught in the squall. We encourage you to visit the painting at Woodmere, then visit our website’s collection page, woodmerecollection.org, and share your thoughts or knowledge on the work.

Woodmere Art Museum is located at 9201 Germantown Ave. For more information, call 215-247-0476 or visit woodmereartmuseum.org.

William R. Valerio, Ph.D., is the Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO, Woodmere Art Museum.