Highlights of the Philadelphia Museum of Art: European and Modern Masterpieces

Updated on January 3, 2019
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We regularly visit Philadelphia, which is a little more than an hour from our New Jersey home. This time we took in some great art.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Van Gogh, Renoir, and Many More Great Artists

Philadelphia's main art museum opened in 1928 on a hill at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a wonderful location that provides a sense of grandeur even before a visitor sees any of the masterpieces inside the main building.

Because the sheer amount of art can be overwhelming, on this visit we focused only on two sections. The first was European Art 1850–1900, which included paintings by Renoir, Manet and Van Gogh, among others. The second was the Modern and Contemporary Art wing, which contains one of the largest collections of Marcel Duchamp.

Following are some highlights of what we saw.

"The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama" by Edouard Manet
"The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama" by Edouard Manet

Manet's Magnificent Rendering of a Naval Battle

One of the most fascinating pictures in the museum is Manet's 1864 painting of a U.S. Civil War naval battle that occurred off the coast of France. "The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama" commemorates the June 19, 1864, confrontation that saw the Union's warship Kearsarge sink the Confederate raider Alabama. The action was fought off the coast near Cherbourg, France.

Manet relied on descriptions from people who witnessed the battle from the shore to make this painting. He worked quickly, with the painting displayed publicly less than a month after the Alabama sank.

The museum calls this Manet's first seascape. It's an action-filled painting that is really exciting and well worth seeing.

Close-Up of Mary Cassatt's "Family Group Reading"
Close-Up of Mary Cassatt's "Family Group Reading"

Pennsylvanian-Born Cassatt Is Well-Represented at the Museum

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844–1926) was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, but won prominence as an artist after moving to France in the 1870s. Her brother became a successful businessman in Philadelphia, which is how the museum was able to acquire a good selection of her art (in fact, a profile she painted of the brother was on display).

Above is a section of "Family Group Reading," a painting she completed in 1898. This was the first time I really examined her work. She worked with very clean lines and bright colors, giving her paintings a warm feel. Very nice.

One of Van Gogh's Famous "Sunflowers"
One of Van Gogh's Famous "Sunflowers"

A Van Gogh Masterpiece From His Second Sunflower Series

Van Gogh famously painted two series of paintings focused on sunflowers. The museum's piece is from the Arles series, painted in 1888 and 1889. According to the museum's website, it isn't known whether this one is one of the first in the series, painted in 1888, or a copy made the following year.

Either way, it is a masterpiece of brilliant color and a must-see on any visit to the museum.

Does This Look Like Marie Bonaparte?

"Princess X" by Constantin Brancusi
"Princess X" by Constantin Brancusi

"Princess X," Controversial for More Than a Century

"Princess X," completed between 1915 and 1916, was pulled from display in Paris, with some believing it to be obscene. The Romanian-born artist, Constantin Brancusi, insisted the 2.5-foot-high piece was a representation of Marie Bonaparte, with the spheres at the base resembling, in his words, her "beautiful bust." But as the museum's display points out, "We might also see the metallic cylinder and spheres as phallic."

My imagination must be limited because I certainly don't see a woman's figure when I look at the piece. How about you?

The Charming "Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
The Charming "Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Renoir's Charming Painting of an 8-Year-Old Girl

Renoir's 1875 portrait of 8-year-old Mademoiselle Adelphine Legrand has strong, warm colors and captures a slightly hesitant expression on the subject's face.

There is a charming feeling to this painting that captured me more than Renoir's various Bathers paintings and portraits of adults that are also in the collection.

Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1) by Marcel Duchamp
Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1) by Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp's Controversial Attempt to Capture Motion in a Painting

Marcel Duchamp's attempt to address what he called "the problem of motion in painting" was highly controversial in the early part of the 20th century. His efforts were rejected by the art community at the time, with his own brothers trying to get him to remove his work from the public.

On display on our visit was "Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1)" from 1911, his first attempt. It was the second painting in the series that sparked the public controversy. The museum contains both versions.

Close-up from "Highway of Combes-la-Ville" by Giovanni Boldini
Close-up from "Highway of Combes-la-Ville" by Giovanni Boldini

The Thrill of Discovering a Painter Whose Work Captures Your Imagination

One of my greatest joys when visiting an art museum is discovering an artist whose work speaks to me for the first time. On this visit, the artist was Italian-born Giovanni Boldini, who spent most of his career as a portrait painter in Paris.

The museum only has two of his works, and oddly enough neither is a portrait. His 1873 landscape "Highway of Combes-la-Ville" is fantastic. The colors jump off the canvas to the point where it feels 3-D. In fact, from a distance, the painting looks almost like a color photo.

Unfortunately, the display didn't offer any information about the painting. I would love to know more about it.

Picasso's "Old Woman (Woman With Gloves)" in the Modern Art Gallery
Picasso's "Old Woman (Woman With Gloves)" in the Modern Art Gallery

Picasso's Painting Leaves Me Cold

Picasso's work went through so many changes over his long life that you can love some of his work and dislike whole segments of his art at the same time.

"Old Woman (Woman With Gloves)" (1901) is from his Blue Period, when he tended to paint very somber subjects. This one has more color than most, but I don't like it.

The Rocky Statue Draws a Crowd

The City's Most Famous Fictional Boxer is Immortalized at the Museum

One of the most iconic scenes from the 1976 movie Rocky was when the boxer, played by Sylvester Stallone, ended a jog by sprinting up the museum's wide steps and posing at the top.

Years later, the city honored the movie by erecting this Rocky statue. At one point, I remember the statue being at the top of the steps. But now it has been moved to a garden spot nearby, presumably because of the crowd that lines up to take photos.

Have You Visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art?

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Philly's Skyline From the Museum's Front Steps

In recent decades the city's skyline has changed dramatically.
In recent decades the city's skyline has changed dramatically.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 goldenrulecomics

    IT's Your Turn: What Are Your Thoughts on the Museum?

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      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        9 months ago from UK

        This is a very interesting and extremely well-illustrated article.

      • Believe in USA profile image

        George Johnson 

        9 months ago from San Antonio, TX

        We loved the art museum. We were amazed at how you could walk right up to iconic works of art and there was no crowd! Loved the medevil section with the suits of armor and the tapestries.

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