by William Valerio
Everyone in Philadelphia, as well as visitors from near and far who have an interest in our city’s contributions to American culture, should go to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts this summer. “From the Schuylkill to the Hudson” is a wonderful exhibition of 19th-century landscape paintings that includes luscious gems and blockbuster paintings one after another.
But it’s also a show that makes an important point. We often think of 19th-century American landscape painting as belonging to New York. The conventional wisdom is that the great English landscape painter Thomas Cole brought his romantic-sublime sensibility to New York, showed a group of his paintings in a storefront window in 1825, and voilà: he artists who came to be known as the Hudson River School were inspired to take a new direction and helped make the United States a leading voice in Western art.
This script continues with the notion that it would be another 100 years, when the New York School and the Abstract Expressionists arrived on the scene, until our country once again decisively seized the artistic torch from Europe – or such is the New York-centered view.
We in Philadelphia know better. Anna Marley, the curator of “From the Schuylkill to the Hudson,” can be authoritative because the exhibition evolved from her doctoral thesis. Bravo to Anna (who, as a resident of Mt. Airy, is one of Woodmere’s neighbors) for transforming her academic writing into an experience for all of us to enjoy.
The exhibition shows us that the artists of post-Revolution Philadelphia, a city built between two rivers, were fascinated by the science of water flow, as were the leading engineers and civic minds who built the famed Fairmount Water Works (their accomplishments should inspire us today). The subject is explored in many different ways – paintings, prints, drawings, ceramics and maps – all of which are abundantly present in the show.
And there are many standout paintings that you don’t want to miss. Center Square, now the location of Philadelphia’s City Hall, was once the site of a great fountain and temple of water, which is shown to be the center of the city’s social life in John Lewis Krimmel’s “Fourth of July in Centre Square” (by 1812).
Paul Weber, an artist who immigrated from Germany to the United States, is, for me, one of the exhibition’s stars. His mural-sized “Landscape, Evening” (1856) dominates the first half of the show, and it is as much a wonder as any work of art can be. (The frame is also a knockout.) Weber, who, like Cole, brought a romantic’s sensibility to American art is under-recognized, yet he was one of the most influential figures in 19th-century landscape painting. You will understand why he was such a sensation when you see PAFA’s show.
The exhibition also shows us how the Hudson River painters we know and love, and who are represented in the culminating galleries, emerged as much from the Enlightenment-era science and ideas being explored by artists in Philadelphia as from the inspiration of Cole and the later fascination with the unique characteristics of the Hudson River and the topography of the Catskills and Upstate New York. By the way, we learn in the course of the exhibition that Cole actually came to Philadelphia in the 1820s to study at PAFA. So much for New York’s claim to owning the American landscape.
Do I have an ulterior motive here? Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t be doing my job as Woodmere’s director if I didn’t. While I very sincerely encourage everyone go to PAFA to enjoy this exhibition, I also want you to come to Woodmere. The artists you encounter on Broad Street are among the anchor figures whose work is always on view in our historic galleries on the corner of Germantown Avenue and Bells Mill Road. You can see Weber’s substantially smaller but no less wonderful “Chestnut Hill near Philadelphia” in our parlor gallery, which is just the sort of parlor these paintings were made to fill.
Woodmere always shows work by members of the Peale family, Thomas Birch, Edmund Darch Lewis, James Hamilton, Jasper Cropsey, Frederic Church and others who embraced a view that the spirit of science and nature can infuse the arts in a way that is as useful spiritually as it is instructive.
“From the Schuylkill to the Hudson” is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through December 29, 2019. William R. Valerio, Ph.D. is The Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum.