Athens of America
In the decades after American independence, the atmosphere of liberty in Philadelphia spawned an artistic spirit that earned this city its reputation as the Athens of America. Here, enthusiasm for the arts grew with the same fervor and in the same houses, streets, and shops where the seeds of political freedom had been sown and cultivated a generation earlier. Philadelphia began to grow into a vibrant, varied, and long-lasting center for arts and culture.
To many, there were clear parallels between Athens in the Great Age of Pericles (480 BC-404 BC) and Philadelphia in the early national period (1790-1840). Athens’ architectural monuments, sculpture, wall painting, pottery, furniture, literature, music, and theatre established the fundamental elements of these arts for more than two thousand years. Philadelphia was poised to take the lead artistically for America in the same way Athens inspired the ancient world.Read More
For Philadelphians—artists and patrons alike—of the 1790s and early 1800s, the term Athens of America was (and perhaps remains) more an aspiration than an accomplishment; more a vision than a triumph. And it was as much about producing art as it was about a government that fostered artistic creation.
Following the 1788 ratification of the U.S. Constitution, many Americans were full of heady ideology as they hearkened back to the purity of the democracy of ancient Athens and the importance of the individual to the success of the whole.
Athenian Art Revival
Visually, the imitation of ancient Athenian art—broadly referred to as classical art—emerged in the mid-1700s during the archaeological excavations of the cities of ancient Greece. Europeans soon revived the arts of ancient Athens (and later Rome) as the prevailing taste, evident in everything from temple-like architecture to high-waisted columnar dresses. This embrace of classical art was uniquely timed with Americans’ enthusiasm for democracy.
When the federal government moved to Philadelphia in 1790 for a ten-year stint, the city was ripe for the flowering of a golden age. Not only was it the most populous and most commercially active American city, the new nation’s capital was an epicenter of intellectual thought and visual expression. Philadelphia institutions were the first to provide access to literature, to encourage artistic and scientific innovation, and to display paintings publicly: consider Benjamin Franklin founding the Library Company (1731) and American Philosophical Society (1743) and Charles Willson Peale opening a portrait gallery (1782) and natural history museum (1786).
From this foundation, the city embarked on an aggressive campaign to build banks, religious and municipal buildings, theatres, art and music schools, academies, and extraordinary residences. The architecture of the new United States was identified by the Philadelphia court house, which became Congress Hall and still stands at Chestnut and Sixth Streets. The temple front, proportions, flat surfaces and arches, Greek-key cornice, and interior plaster ornament reference Greek architecture—in contrast to the State House (now Independence Hall, completed in 1753), Christ Church (completed in 1755), and Carpenter’s Hall (completed in 1773).
By the 1800s, the subtlety of Congress Hall gave way to more and more pronounced imitation, such as the creations of British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820): the Waterworks at Center Square (1800, now the site of City Hall), the Bank of Pennsylvania (1801), and the house and furniture of William and Mary Waln (1808). Latrobe’s protégées continued his legacy: Second Bank of the United States (William Strickland, 1816), Washington Hall (Robert Mills, 1816), the Fairmount Water Works (Frederick Graff, 1822), Girard College (Thomas U. Walter, 1833), and Nicholas Biddle’s estate, Andalusia (Latrobe, 1811 and Walter, 1837).
Classical Columns and Draperies
Sculptor William Rush progressed from carving ship figureheads to major public monuments in the classical style. Painters, led by Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, and the Peale family, depicted the city’s leaders flanked by classical columns and draperies, and composed pictures based on Greek mythology and literature. Stuart recalled his time in Philadelphia in the 1790s by saying “when I resided in the Athens of America….”
The design of furniture, fabrics, upholstery, silver, and ceramics followed architecture’s classicizing trend. Where furniture once had voluptuous carving, there was low relief carving and colorful wood inlays of vases, urns, and intricate geometric patterns. Chairs had backs in the shape of vases and by 1805 wholly imitated antique Greek Klismos chairs. Upholsterers (who functioned as interior designers) contrasted sharp seat edges with flowing drapery. They modeled it on upholstery depicted on Greek pottery, which was illustrated in the catalogue of antique pottery from the “cabinet” (collection) of British antiquarian Sir William Hamilton—available at The Library Company in 1775.
Porcelain like the shell-encrusted pickle stand produced by Philadelphia entrepreneurs Messrs. Bonnin & Morris between 1770 and 1772 evolved into the lustrous smooth porcelain made at the Philadelphia factory of William and Thomas Tucker from 1826 to 1838. The Tucker’s shapes mimicked Greek pottery, with the white of the porcelain body suggesting marble.
The term Athens of America to refer to Philadelphia was used as early as 1783, though later some applied the same phrase to Boston, and towns named Athens dotted the American landscape. Henry Latrobe’s May 8, 1811, oration (in good Greek fashion) to Philadelphia’s Society of Artists is often cited as affirming the city as the Athens of America: he dreamed that “the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western World.” Latrobe pointed out the importance of the academies and schools of art in Philadelphia—the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (founded in 1805), the Walnut Street Theatre (1809), and the Society of Artists (1811)—and their associated buildings, endowments, administrators, and teachers.
The Philadelphia Athenaeum
The Philadelphia Athenaeum — literally a place for the promotion of reading and higher learning — was founded in 1814. In The National Gazette, a writer defined the Athens of America as “A city where the public library is open three to four hours in the day.”
Could Philadelphia sustain its lofty aspiration? In 1825, a Richmond, Va., newspaper reported that “Philadelphia is determined, as far as her public buildings will effect it, to establish her claim to the title of the Athens of America.” But by the 1840s, the fervor that gave rise to Philadelphia’s claim as “Athens of America” diminished. New York — the Empire City — dominated, culturally as well as economically.
Still, the image resonated into the 1890s, when the Acropolis-like site of the reservoir for the old Fairmount Waterworks was chosen for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Institutions created during the golden years continue to produce great painters and sculptors, and cultures from around the world add new layers to the city’s visual and performing arts.
Named by William Penn, Philadelphia — from the Greek Philos (loving) and adelphos (brother) — achieved greatness by modeling itself after Athens through placing importance on the arts. While cultural centers formed around the country, Philadelphians remain both the beneficiary and the inheritor of the pursuit to be the Athens of America. None would recognize the city without its arts.
Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley is Associate Curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Topics: The Arts
American Bandstand (1952-89) was a massively popular music television program with strong Philadelphia roots, storied national success, and the power to shape the music industry and society. The show epitomized many important aspects of ever-evolving American popular culture: mass communication, popular music, youth culture, dance and fashion trends, as well as race and gender relationships. ⇒ Read More
Outside the urban core of Philadelphia, the picturesque rural landscape proved a significant draw to many artists in search of the purportedly simple, wholesome, and moral quality of countryside living. Whether planned and intentional or more organic and serendipitous, colonies like those in New Hope, Chadds Ford, and Rose Valley in Pennsylvania, and Arden and ⇒ Read More
The Arts and Crafts movement in Greater Philadelphia grew against the backdrop of the area’s increasingly industrial character in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition brought attention to Philadelphia’s prominence as a manufacturing center and fostered a renewed sense of pride in the city’s connections to national history, but it ⇒ Read More
The Athenæum of Philadelphia, a not-for-profit, member-supported library, was founded in 1814 “to disseminate useful knowledge.” Threatened for its very existence with the advent of the city’s free library in 1894, the organization subsequently recovered and ultimately thrived as it reinvented itself as a special- collections library with related public exhibitions, lectures, and publications. Unlike ⇒ Read More
The Avenue of the Arts is the appellation for a section of Broad Street—from Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia to Glenwood Avenue in North Philadelphia—devoted to arts and entertainment facilities. The Avenue was conceived in 1993 by a coalition of public and private entities to attract visitors to Center City. Amid a decline in manufacturing, ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia has a rich ballet history that spans centuries. Although initially not hospitable to dance, the city developed into an attractive destination for international ballet dancers and teachers and eventually produced the first genuine ballerinas born in the United States, the first thoroughly American ballet troupe, and one of the most prominent of the regional ⇒ Read More
Businessman, chemist, educator, and art collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) established the Barnes Foundation in 1922 as a center for art education organized around his growing collection of paintings, sculpture, and furniture. The institution earned international renown, less for its pedagogy than for its art collection, which by mid-century was world-class. Initially based in ⇒ Read More
The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania North America; as it appeared in the Year 1800 is a masterpiece of American copperplate engraving and the first book of views to be entirely produced and published in the United States. Comprising twenty-seven scenes or “views” of Philadelphia’s buildings and streetscapes, the book aimed to ⇒ Read More
Between 1750 and 1800, Philadelphia became the center for book printing and publishing in the United States, surpassing New York and Boston. Although Philadelphia lost that primacy in the nineteenth century, firms specializing in medical and religious publishing continued to do well. By the mid to late twentieth century, however, as the publishing industry consolidated, ⇒ Read More
The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine, more simply known as “the Centennial,” opened in Fairmount Park to great fanfare on May 10, 1876, and closed with equal flourish six months later. Modeled after the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition in London in 1851, and the first in a long ⇒ Read More
The first successful women’s magazine and most widely circulated magazine in the antebellum United States, Godey’s Lady’s Book offered fashion illustrations and advice, literary pieces, and articles on current events and popular culture. Founded in Philadelphia in 1830 by Louis Antoine Godey (1804-1878) and edited for four decades by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), the magazine provided ⇒ Read More
From the early nineteenth century onward, Philadelphia spawned an abundance of mysterious tales starring shadowy strangers, fantastic happenings, and deadly conspiracies. Prominent genre writers including Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), George Lippard (1822-54), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) made the City of Brotherly Love the birthplace of American gothic literature. Although the gothic arguably reached its ⇒ Read More
The Gross Clinic, painted in 1875 by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), is among the most highly regarded American artworks from the nineteenth century. It is a portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (1805-84), an internationally celebrated surgeon who taught at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia from 1856 to 1882. Created by a local artist and depicting ⇒ Read More
“Do you love truth for truth’s sake?” If the answer is yes, you are one-fourth of the way through the initiation ceremony of the Junto, which Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) founded in 1727 in Philadelphia. The 21-year-old Franklin, according to his autobiography, established the Junto as a club for “mutual improvement,” inviting acquaintances to meet weekly ⇒ Read More
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts was designed as the centerpiece of the Avenue of the Arts, a rebranded stretch of Broad Street devoted to performing arts venues. Built by a partnership of public and private entities, the Kimmel Center was part of a wider plan to revitalize Center City via the construction of ⇒ Read More
Founded in 1836 as an alternative to the overcrowded churchyards of rapidly growing Philadelphia, Laurel Hill Cemetery was the first rural cemetery for the city and the second in the United States. With monuments designed by the era’s most prominent sculptors and architects, it served as elite Philadelphia’s preferred burial place for over a century. ⇒ Read More
On a November day during the severe winter of 1805, a parcel containing over sixty plants, rocks, and fossils arrived at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Collected by Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), these were specimens from the Corps of Discovery Expedition (1803-1806), the western journey of Lewis and William Clark (1770-1838). While the explorers became ⇒ Read More
Liberia; Or, Mr. Peyton’s Experiments (1853) is a hybrid work containing fiction, history, and biography along with transcriptions of documents on Liberia. The work argued that free blacks could not prosper in North America but had opportunities for advancement and self-determination in Liberia, a black Christian republic. The Americo-Liberian settlers would not only rise themselves ⇒ Read More
Modern Chivalry is a rich American novel, penned by the army chaplain, editor, Pennsylvania lawyer and judge, state legislator, and writer Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816), published in installments from 1792 to 1815. A social and political satire, it features two main characters, Captain John Farrago and his Irish servant, Teague O’Regan, who engage in humorous, ⇒ Read More
Philadelphia has a long, distinguished history as a center of American painting. In addition to the work of individuals and artistic family dynasties, the history of Philadelphia painters is linked with the city’s art schools, particularly the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), founded in 1805. Working locally and abroad, Philadelphia painters have connected ⇒ Read More
Inspired by eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals celebrating humankind’s capacity to learn and use new information, the artist Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) conceived his Philadelphia Museum. In it, Peale intended the works of man and nature to coexist for the edification of all. The Philadelphia Museum, Peale said, served “to instruct the mind and sow the seeds ⇒ Read More
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia became a leading center of printmaking in the United States. While publishing companies had operated in the city since the eighteenth century, the technological innovations of the firm of Peter S. Duval (1804/5-86) transformed Philadelphia’s lithographic trade into a booming industry. Duval’s commitment to improving printmaking methods and achieving ⇒ Read More
The birthplace of the American “record” industry, the Philadelphia region for more than a century has been home to a thriving industry of recording studios and record companies. In Camden, New Jersey, the Victor Company in the early 1900s was the nation’s largest manufacturer of musical recordings. Since then, Philadelphia’s unique concentration of diversified industries, ⇒ Read More
Three young artists who took up residence at the old Red Rose Inn in Villanova, Pennsylvania, in the first decade of the twentieth century helped make Philadelphia a national leader in book and magazine illustration. They also successfully challenged the idea that only men could be “serious” and influential professional artists. The “Red Rose Girls”—Jessie ⇒ Read More
More than just a popular series of Hollywood films or the fictional prizefighter whose life and career they chronicle, Rocky is a late-twentieth-century cultural phenomenon that reframed Philadelphia for local, national, and international audiences. Rocky premiered in 1976. Written by and starring Sylvester Stallone (b. 1946), the film introduced audiences to Rocky Balboa: a down-and-out ⇒ Read More