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 the region with artistic trends and have produced works that made Philadelphia known to the nation and the world.
Portraiture was the first subject to prove lucrative for American artists. In colonial Philadelphia, as in other early American cities, those who gained sufficient wealth to acquire art usually first purchased paintings of themselves and their families. Portraits validated personal status and wealth and served to venerate loved ones. Wedding portraits—pairs of paintings depicting husbands and wives, created around the time of their wedding—were very popular. Philadelphians also commissioned more portrait miniatures, typically painted in watercolor on ivory, than the residents of any other American city.
Although English art influenced most early Philadelphia painters, the first notable portraitist was Swedish-born Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755), who settled in Philadelphia around 1735. His best-known canvases depict the Lenape chiefs Lapowinsa and Tishcohan (c. 1735); these are rare early portraits of Native Americans. Hesselius’s son John (1728-78), born in Philadelphia, also painted portraits. Other early portraitists, including the itinerant artists Robert Feke (c. 1705/07- c. 52) and John Wollaston (active 1742-75), visited Philadelphia in search of commissions.
Like others, Benjamin West (1738-1820) painted the city’s social, political, and business leaders, but he also diversified into historical, biblical, and mythological subjects that helped to establish a shared national iconography. Born near Philadelphia in Springfield, Pennsylvania— in a house that became part of the campus of Swarthmore College—West became the first American artist recognized abroad. In 1763 he moved to England, an important destination and stylistic influence for American painters during the colonial and early federal eras. West ascended to president of the Royal Academy, and in that role he influenced numerous younger artists including the Philadelphia painters Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), and Thomas Sully (1773-1872).
The first of the region’s artistic dynasties emerged from the family of Charles Willson Peale, a central figure in Philadelphia’s art world as a painter, museum founder, and patriarch of a family of artists and scientists. Born in Chester, Maryland, Peale moved in 1776 to Philadelphia, where he established Peale’s Museum a decade later. Peale became best known for his portraits of Revolutionary War notables: George Washington, who posed for him seven times between 1772 and 1795, appears in many variant portraits; and Benjamin Franklin, who posed in 1785, was painted again four years later in a variant that references his lightning experiment. Portraits of these men and others—including Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock—were displayed in Peale’s museum of natural history alongside scientific specimens, making a powerful statement of nationalistic pride.
Peale married three times and fathered seventeen children, including the painters Rembrandt, Raphaelle (1774-1825), and Titian (1799-1885), all named for famous artists. Rembrandt Peale, like his father, became known for portraits of Washington, who posed for the Peales in person more often than for any other artist. Raphaelle Peale emerged as the first professional American still life painter. Titian Ramsay Peale, an artist-naturalist, accompanied expeditions to Florida and Georgia, the Rocky Mountains, and South America and illustrated publications based on these journeys. Charles Willson Peale’s brother James (1749-1831) was also an artist, specializing in portrait miniatures and still lifes, the same subjects painted by his daughter Anna Claypoole (1791-1878). James’ daughters Margaretta Angelica (1795-1882) and Sarah Miriam (1800-1885) specialized in still life. In 1824, Anna and Sarah Peale were the first women elected academicians at PAFA.
As America’s leading financial center and the nation’s capital in the 1790s, Philadelphia attracted immigrant artists and painters from the surrounding region. Rhode Island-born Gilbert Stuart, one of America’s most skillful early portraitists and a student of Benjamin West in London, began a ten-year residence in Germantown in 1795. During that period, George Washington posed for Stuart one day and for the Peales the next. Stuart created three portraits of Washington: the bust-length Athenaeum portrait (1796) that appears on the one dollar bill; the bust-length Vaughan portrait (1795); and the full-length Lansdowne portrait of Washington in his study (1796). Stuart himself painted and sold many copies of these three portrait types.
Popularity of Marine Painting
As an important port city, Philadelphia also supported a robust group of marine painters who produced seascapes, a popular Romantic-era subject, and harbor scenes that appealed to patrons who founded their fortunes on overseas trade. One of the first marine specialists was the English-born Thomas Birch (1779-1851), who came to the United States with his artist father William Birch (1755-1834). In addition to painting ships at sea and harbor scenes, the younger artist assisted his father in preparing a portfolio of twenty-nine engravings known as Birch’s Views of Philadelphia (1800).
The next generation of Philadelphia marine painters included James Hamilton (1819-78) and his student Edward Moran (1829-1901). Hamilton’s romantic marine paintings often represented the passions of nature, with stormy weather and glowing red sunsets. Moran specialized in painting ships at sea; by the 1890s, he was widely considered America’s leading marine painter. Moran came from an artistic Philadelphia family. His brother Thomas (1837-1926), the most famous of the Morans, also studied with Hamilton; both brothers eventually left for New York, the country’s economic and artistic capital beginning in the mid-1820s. Their younger brothers, painters Peter (1841-1914) and John (1831-1902), gained less distinction.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, cultural institutions and artists’ societies enhanced Philadelphia as a center for art. Charles Willson Peale and his colleagues founded two of the nation’s first art schools. The Columbianum (1794), a loose association of artists, intended to hold exhibitions and start an art school; it sponsored the first display of American art in 1795, but closed the same year. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, founded in 1805, became more successful; by the twenty-first century it was the oldest American art school still in operation and maintained an impressive museum of American art. The Society of Arts (1810) offered art classes from 1811 until 1814. The Artists’ Fund Society of Philadelphia (1834) organized exhibitions and aided needy artists and their families. The Artists’ and Amateurs’ Association of Philadelphia (1839) promoted American art in a city whose citizens then preferred to purchase paintings imported from Europe.
Portraiture, including iconic images of national leaders, remained a competitive enterprise in the nineteenth century. The English-born Thomas Sully led the field, followed by John Neagle (1796-1865) and Bass Otis (1784-1861). Sully worked in a dramatic, painterly manner like Gilbert Stuart, with whom he studied briefly. Over time, PAFA acquired more than forty portraits by Sully and more than twenty by Neagle, his son-in-law and former student. Neagle took an active role in the city’s art circles, serving as director of PAFA (1830-31) and as a founder and president (1835-43) of the Artists’ Fund Society.
Landscapes also appealed to Philadelphian patrons. Paintings of American scenery by Joshua Shaw (1776-1860) and Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), two of the nation’s first landscape painters, conveyed pride in the young republic. Shaw, one of the painters who founded the Artists’ and Amateurs’ Association of Philadelphia and promoted the Artists’ Fund Society, came to Philadelphia from England in 1819. Doughty, a native of Philadelphia, became the first American-born landscape painter. Referencing European culture, their romanticized landscapes include stylized trees framing the scene, dark foregrounds, small figures that provide a focal point, central lakes or streams, and distant hills. Philadelphians considered them more sophisticated than straightforward paintings of identifiable American places.
John Lewis Krimmel
German-born John Lewis Krimmel (1786-1821) focused his attention on distinct local scenes. A student of Sully, Krimmel lived in Philadelphia from 1809 until his death in 1821. As America’s first specialist in genre subjects, or scenes of everyday life, Krimmel painted Election Day (1815) and Fourth of July Celebration in Centre Square, Philadelphia (1819). These lively street scenes include individuals of various ages and professions. With works such as Black People’s Prayer Meeting (1813), Krimmel also became one of the first American artists to depict life among free blacks. Genre paintings, popular in times of change, continued to be produced during the three decades before the Civil War. They were painted by many Philadelphia artists, including William and Thomas Birch, Thomas Sully, John Neagle, Bass Otis, Christian Schussele (1824-79), and Peter F. Rothermel (1812-95).
Local history figured in the work of Edward Hicks (1780-1849), a Langhorne, Pennsylvania native who lived in the area his entire life. A Quaker minister, Hicks learned sign painting to supplement his income. He painted several canvases depicting William Penn’s treaty with the Indians and occasionally included the same subject in the background of The Peaceable Kingdom, a Biblical subject he painted many times.
Iconic American images of a different type were made by John James Audubon (1785-1851). Born in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and raised in France, Audubon came to the United States in 1803 and lived initially at Mill Grove, a farm near Valley Forge owned by his father. An artist-naturalist like Peale, Audubon created a groundbreaking color-plate book, Birds of America, first published in 1827, containing hand-colored engravings of over seven hundred North American bird species.
Paintings of American history provided symbolic validation of the republic. Philadelphia’s leading history painters at mid-century were Peter F. Rothermel, born in Nescopeck, Pennsylvania, and Christian Schussele, born in Alsace, France. Rothermel, a student of Bass Otis, specialized in portraits and dramatic historical subjects, including the 16-by-32-foot Battle of Gettysburg (1870) at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg. Schussele’s group portraits—Men of Progress (1862), depicting famous American inventors, and Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside (1864)— celebrated American inventors, writers, and the beginnings of an American national culture. Both painters became active in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Rothermel as director from 1847 to 1855 and Schussele as the first professor of drawing and painting from 1868 until his death in 1879.
PAFA’s Broad Influence
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts played an important role in the generation of painters who made their mark on the art world in the United States and in Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Painter, sculptor, and photographer Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), who studied at PAFA in the 1860s before continuing his training in Europe, returned to teach from 1876 to 1886. In addition to portraits of wealthy individuals he painted subjects ranging from shad fishing on the Delaware to William Rush carving his allegorical figure of the Schuylkill River; from singers, scullers, and boxers to boys swimming and women spinning. Eakins’ realistic portraits explored the personality as well as external appearance of his sitters. Among them are The Gross Clinic (1875)— considered shocking at the time because it depicts a bloody surgical procedure in progress—and boating scenes such as Max Schmidt in a Single Scull (1871). Following an influential decade teaching at PAFA, in which he emphasized anatomical studies and working from the nude, Eakins was forced to resign after removing the loincloth from a male model in a class that included female students.
Students and teachers at PAFA were among the American painters who turned to Paris, rather than London, to develop and exhibit their talents during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), born into a wealthy family near Pittsburgh, began taking classes at PAFA at the age of fifteen. She settled permanently in Paris in 1871, following a trip abroad with fellow Philadelphia artist Emily Sartain (1841-1927). In Paris Cassatt became a friend of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and exhibited portraits of friends and family members with the French Impressionists.
Cecelia Beaux (1855-1942), born in Philadelphia, trained with Christian Schussele at the Academy. Beaux studied art in France from 1888 to 1889, then returned to paint portraits of Philadelphia’s high society in a style reminiscent of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). In 1895, she became the first woman to hold a regular teaching position at PAFA, where she taught until 1916.
Born in Pittsburgh, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a student of Thomas Eakins and the only black student at PAFA at the time, became the first African American painter to achieve international recognition. After his PAFA training Tanner moved to Paris in 1891 and flourished. The French government made him a knight of the Legion of Honour in 1923 in recognition of his artistic career. The Philadelphia Museum of Art and PAFA acquired several of Tanner’s paintings, including his unusual interpretation of The Annunciation (1898).
As Art Market Grew, So Did Subject Matter
As the art market expanded, painters specialized in a wider variety of subjects. Two of America’s most famous trompe l’oeil specialists, the Irish-born William Michael Harnett (1848-92) and John F. Peto (1854-1907), a native of Philadelphia, painted illusionistic still lifes in the tradition of Raphaelle Peale. Both studied at PAFA, although neither artist spent his entire career in Philadelphia.
In addition to PAFA, several important Philadelphia painters studied with Howard Pyle (1853-1911), founder of the so-called Brandywine school of illustration. Philadelphia-born Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) attended Haverford College and PAFA before studying briefly with Pyle at Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry. Parrish launched his career with illustrations for L. Frank Baum’s Mother Goose in Prose (1897), although he became best known for his colorful paintings of androgynous, neo-classical women in outdoor settings.
Another student of Pyle, painter Violet Oakley (1874-1961) of Jersey City, New Jersey, attended PAFA briefly before studying illustration at Drexel. With Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935) and Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954) Oakley was one of the “Red Rose Girls,” named by Pyle for the Villanova, Pennsylvania, inn where they lived and worked at the beginning of the twentieth century. In addition to her illustration work, Oakley painted forty-three murals for the state Capitol in Harrisburg, including images of William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania (1906, 1911-27).
While many of the region’s artists sought opportunities abroad, a group of local painters founded a movement that came to be known as Pennsylvania Impressionism. Centered primarily in New Hope, Bucks County, the group included Daniel Garber (1880-1958), W. Elmer Schofield (1867-1944), Edward Redfield (1869-1965), and Fern Coppedge (1883-1951). Like their French predecessors, they created landscapes and occasional figural subjects in a loose, painterly manner. They generally remained in the area, painting the Pennsylvania landscape that inspired them.
The Ash Can School
Other artists, including several key members of the Ash Can School, left for New York City. Painting gritty urban streets scenes and images of the poor, they were named derisively for the ash cans or dustbins then used to collect refuse from wood and coal fires. The group included the “Philadelphia Four”—George Luks (1867-1933), William Glackens (1870-1938), John Sloan (1871-1951), and Everett Shinn (1876-1953)—who studied with the realist painter Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) at PAFA. They were also influenced by Robert Henri (1865-1929), then teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (later Moore College of Art and Design). Around the turn of the century, Henri and the Philadelphia Four moved to New York.
One of the Philadelphia Four, William Glackens, also helped bring modern European art to Philadelphia. Glackens traveled to Paris in 1912 to buy paintings for collector Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), a Philadelphian who collected Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Early Modern art with a focus on European painters. A chemist and eccentric who scorned the art world establishment, Barnes displayed the paintings in his Barnes Foundation museum and art school in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, established in 1922 and moved to Center City Philadelphia in 2012.
Philadelphia continued to produce notable painters in the twentieth century, including several early modernists inspired by Cubism. John Marin (1870-1953), born in New Jersey, studied at PAFA before spending the rest of his career in the New York area and his summers in Maine. Stuart Davis (1892-1964) was born into an artistic Philadelphia family: his mother was a sculptor, his father an art editor for the Philadelphia Press. Davis moved to New York in 1909, initially studying with Robert Henri. Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952) was born in Philadelphia and attended PAFA; after a decade in Paris and New York, he returned to teach at the academy from 1917 to 1925.
New York and Paris also attracted the artist Man Ray (1890-1976), born Emmanuel Radnitsky in Philadelphia. His early canvases exhibited Cubist influence, but in the 1920s and 1930s he painted in a Surrealist style. Man Ray considered himself a painter but became better known for the Dada-inspired assemblage sculptures and photographs he created in Paris.
Two of the best-known Precisionist painters—Charles Demuth (1883-1935) and Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)—studied at PAFA. Known for their clean, precise style, the Precisionists painted American factories, skyscrapers, and machines. Born in Lancaster, Demuth remained a lifelong resident of Pennsylvania; his Lancaster home became the Demuth Museum, exhibiting his work. Sheeler, born in Philadelphia, owned a farmhouse in Doylestown that he frequently featured in his paintings. He shared the house with his artist-friend Morton Schamberg (1881-1918), also an alumnus of PAFA, until Schamberg died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Sheeler left Pennsylvania to spend most of his career in the New York area.
New Deal Art Program
During the Great Depression, art programs of the federal New Deal supported painters in producing new work for Philadelphia and elsewhere. The Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts sponsored mural painters across the country. Partly in response to this patronage, New Deal art was usually optimistic in mood and realistic in style. The most prominent artists to paint murals in Philadelphia were Raphael Soyer (1899-1987) and his twin brother Moses (1899-1974), who traveled from New York to decorate the Kingsessing Branch of the U.S. Post Office (1939). New Deal muralists also included local painters George Harding (1882-1959) and Walter Gardner (1902-96). Harding created extant murals for the Philadelphia Customs House (1938) and the North Philadelphia Post Office (1939); Gardner painted The Streets of Philadelphia for the Spring Garden Post Office (1937).
Other New Deal artists worked on a smaller scale, employed by the Federal Art Project’s Easel Division. Julius T. Bloch (1888-1966), a resident of Philadelphia, specialized in sympathetic portraits of African Americans. One depicts the self-taught painter Horace Pippin (1888-1946), who was born in West Chester and returned there after World War I to paint historical subjects and images of life among black Americans. Another African American artist, Dox Thrash (1893-1965), became best known for the Depression era paintings and prints he created between 1936 and 1939.
Philadelphia area painters have often shown a predilection for realism. Three generations of the Wyeth family—another artistic dynasty, rooted in the Brandywine Valley—specialized in realistic illustrations and paintings. N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), a former student of Howard Pyle, became best known for illustrating The Last of the Mohicans and Treasure Island. N.C. Wyeth’s son Andrew (1917-2009) painted Christina’s World (1948), the Helga series, and other works in tempera and watercolor. Andrew’s son Jamie (b. 1946) specializes in human and animal portraits.
The region’s realist painters also included Alice Neel (1900-84), born in Merion Square (Gladwyne) and educated at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (Moore College of Art and Design). A portraitist who worked mostly in New York, Neel painted expressive images of her family and friends, fellow artists, poets, and others.
Several artistic movements of the twentieth century inspired followers in Philadelphia. The best-known Abstract Expressionist with a connection to the city was Franz Kline (1910-62), who was born in Wilkes-Barre but attended Girard College before leaving the area. The Abstract Expressionists James Kelly (1913-2003) and Sonia Gechtoff (b. 1926) had stronger connections to the city. Born and trained in Philadelphia, they met and married in San Francisco before moving permanently to New York. The Op Art movement inspired Virginia-born Edna Andrade (1917-2008), who studied at the Barnes Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania, and PAFA. Andrade taught at the University of the Arts for thirty years. Warren Rohrer (1927-95), born in Lancaster County, painted abstractions in a Minimalist or Color Field style and taught at the University of the Arts for twenty-five years.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Philadelphia became known as a city of murals. Through the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, founded in 1984, painters produced more than 3,800 works of public art through collaborations with community-based organizations, city agencies, schools, and philanthropic organizations. The results included Kent Twitchell’s Dr. J (1990) at 1219 Ridge Avenue, featuring former Philadelphia 76er Julius Erving, and Meg Saligman’s eight-story-high Common Threads (1998) at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, which highlighted humans’ shared concerns.
In the multi-cultural, pluralist art world of the early twenty-first century, Philadelphia’s painters ranged from avant-garde artists who combined painting with installation and other art forms – Alex Da Corte (b. 1980), Jane Irish (b. 1955), Karen Kilimnik (b. 1955), Odili Donald Odita (b. 1966) – to more traditional painters working in a range of realistic and abstract styles – Moe Brooker (b. 1940), Sarah McEneaney (b. 1955), Elizabeth Osborne (b. 1936), and Becky Suss (b. 1980). An expanding network of museums, galleries, and artists’ collectives provided fertile ground for established and emerging artists, giving Philadelphia a diverse and active art world.
Kate Nearpass Ogden, Professor of Art History at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey, received her Ph.D. from Columbia University, New York. Her publications have focused on nineteenth-century American painting and photography.
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