New Galleries of American Art to Open in Philadelphia

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on December 22, 2020

Looking ahead to next year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

New Galleries of American Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art, opening early 2021

A major re-installation devoted to the presentation of the museum’s extensive holdings of American Art spanning 1650 through 1840 will inaugurate the museum’s new 10,000 square foot suite of galleries for American Art, a distinctive feature of Frank Gehry’s Core Project of the Facilities Master Plan, which also includes new galleries for Contemporary Art, together adding more than 20,000 square feet of gallery space within the museum’s footprint.

Coffeepot, 1750–53, made by Philip Syng, Jr. (1703–1789) for Joseph Galloway (1731–1803), silver with wood handle, 12 inches high (Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with the John D. McIlhenny Fund, 1966).

The opening of these galleries in early 2021 will represent the first major expansion and reinterpretation of the museum’s renowned collection of American Art in over 40 years. Arranged chronologically and thematically, this new installation will showcase the rich diversity of cultures and creative traditions that contributed to the formation of early American artworks. New interpretations of this collection explore the artistic ties linking the Americas to Asia; the role of enslavement in the production and financing of art throughout the period; Philadelphia’s role as an influential cultural capital; and the stories and works of Black, women, and Indigenous artists, promoting the museum’s vision to bring the collection to life and advancing scholarship in the field.

The galleries begin by exploring how trade and colonization forcibly brought together Indigenous people, Europeans, and Africans, creating new cultures in the Americas. The first gallery contrasts the English Quaker culture of William Penn’s colony, as an outpost of the British empire, to the cultural traditions of the Lenape people in the Delaware Valley and the Spanish viceroyalty in Mexico. Another gallery explores how global connections were made and shaped by a network of trade that linked the Western hemisphere to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Further in, a gallery shows how some American artists developed a visual language based on the traditions of their European homelands. This gallery introduces painters John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, and Benjamin West, who demonstrated ambition, originality, and persistence in rising to international stature from provincial roots.

One gallery compares and contrasts the English and German cultures that thrived in both Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania environs. Special displays highlight groups of miniatures, fraktur, and textiles to evoke the diversity and richness of domestic life.

Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of Yarrow Mamout (Muhammad Yaro), 1819, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2011-87-1).

The museum’s collection of the work of the Peale family—the most comprehensive in the country—includes a remarkable series of family portraits and representative works by America’s earliest professional women painters. The story of the Peale Museum, the country’s first public collection of art and natural history, will be told in portrait and still-life paintings and in cut silhouettes made by Moses Williams, an artist enslaved by the Peales.

One gallery explores Philadelphia’s role as the capitol of the new nation from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia led the country not only politically, but also through contributions to the development of a new and distinctively American sense of artistic style. Described as the Athens of America, the city reinterpreted the ancient classical past in its architecture and arts, drawing upon the legacy of democratic Greece and republican Rome to create a compelling visual language representative of the aspirations of the new nation.

Presidential China from 1780 to 1980 is displayed in new and beautifully-lit casework. Made for and used by United States presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, the museum’s collection illustrates changes in national symbolism, the role of the presidency, and different modes of dining across three centuries.

The re-installation also addresses transformational changes beginning in the 19th century sparked by territorial expansion (and subsequent Indigenous displacement) industrialization and immigration. Serving this spirit of national ambition, a robust style of late classicism shaped the decorative arts, while technological developments made affordable production possible on a large scale. Philadelphia, with the largest free Black community in the country, was home to many Black artists. The natural world, seen as emblematic of American promise, sparked a new landscape tradition in Philadelphia in work by Thomas Doughty and Thomas Cole, fathers of the Hudson River School. The last section explores how European cultural traditions took on new forms in the young United States, especially through works created by the Pennsylvania Germans from about 1800 through 1850. On view will also be Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, with its depiction of Penn’s treaty with the Indians, which revisits the mythology of Pennsylvania’s founding.

The reinstallation was planned by a cross-departmental curatorial team that has worked closely on the selection of works and contemporary understanding.

Curatorial Team
Kathleen A. Foster, Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Curator of American Art; Director, Center for American Art; David Barquist, Curator of American Decorative Arts; Alexandra Kirtley, The Montgomery-Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts; Carol Soltis, Project Associate Curator; John Vick, Collections Project Manager; Rosalie Hooper, Collections Interpreter and Project Curatorial Assistant; with Jessica Todd Smith, Susan Gray Detweiler Curator of American Art and Manager of the Center for American Art; Elisabeth Agro, The Nancy M. McNeil Curator of American Modern and Contemporary Crafts and Decorative Arts.

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