its always money in philadelphia

Philadelphia. It’s always had a peculiar character about it; an aristocracy of old families, Quaker in conscience if not in religion or taste…

“Philadelphia,” wrote George Biddle in his autobiography, ” has its own breed of integrity. It believes in itself, although there is nothing much any longer worth believing in. It respects its own standards, although these standards are inconceivably shallow and antedate in great measure the birth of our nation. It has the logic and courage to love what it likes, and to mistrust or to dislike anything worth achieving- anything as a rule that is not Philadelphian.”

Charles Willson Peale, founding father of Phildelphia's artistic tradition, painted this picture of himself at the entrance to his museum. Image: Wiki

Biddle spike for a long line of artists who found the city stifling to talent. Yet it certainly has a long and honorable, if curious aesthetic history; as long and honorable as any town of its age in the world; curious in that only one creative artist, Eakins, is generally acknowledged, in America at least, to be first rate. Yet many others have achieved some renown; the Peales and Eakins, Wyeth formed an unbroken chain of talent at home; while Benjamin West, Leslie, Singer Sargent, Cassatt, and Biddle among others, formed a tradition in exile.

The persistence of this artistic tradition is the direct result of the oligarchy’s somewhat condescending patronage of the Muses. It was a world of letters, painting, and music supported, created, and maintained largely by Old Philadelphians, with vital help from the German and jewish bourgeoisie, that made it possible for artists to exist in Philadelphia at all. Painting was the art that flourished best and longest there.

---In contrast to the public pomp that accrued to him in that year, Biddle chose to pay tribute to the fourteen-years-younger Soyer with an intimate and introspective portrait that is also a meditation on the quiet, solitary, and unglamorous process of artistic creation. In 1947, the world of art was undergoing a postwar upheaval, and New York stood on the front lines. The old modernist impulse that had governed painting throughout the first half of the century was under siege from a younger generation that rejected the necessity of representation and privileged a creative act that was as much instinctual and visceral as it was cerebral. Abstract Expressionism, in short, challenged the premises of figurative art as it was championed by the likes of Biddle, Raphael Soyer, and the latter's brothers, Isaac and Moses. In 1950, a stoic Biddle recorded in his diary a conversation in which Soyer lamented the current state of the arts. Biddle wrote: He (Soyer) was very depressed. God knows, I am myself. Both of us feel-most of the finest artists of my generation, modern or traditional, feel-that the present moment is one of chaos, chicanery, and double-talk in the art world. There are no valid critical standards. Perhaps all this is a reflection of the chaos of the world. ---Read More:

The great tradition begins with two very different contemporaries Benjamin West ( 1732-1820) and Charles Willson Peale ( 1741-1827). Between them they symbolized pretty neatly the two poles, the double bias of Philadelphian, and indeed American, culture: one the sssentially colonial tradition looking to Europe for values and approval, even to the extent of expatriation, the other the native tradition, firmly rooted in Philadelphia itself. These two viewpoints culminate in John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins.

Peale, who stayed at home, was one of those crotchety, curious minded, many faceted individualists that Philadelphia seems to have nursed so willingly in its great days and so grudgingly later on. The great hobby and profession of his vigorous old age was his museum, containing portraits of Revolutionary heroes and stuffed animals, for which he rented the second floor of Independence Hall.

---Credit: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia (Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison; the Joseph Harrison Jr. Collection; Acc. #1878.1.10 In 1771 Thomas Penn commissioned Benjamin West to create a painting of his father meeting with the Native Americans. Although historically inaccurate on many counts in this imaginary encounter West painted Penn and his entourage as prosperous mid-1700s London Quakers and modeled his Indians after Italian sculptures– William Penn's Treaty with the Indians conveyed the very real sense of trust that Penn established with Native Americans in the early y

of his colony. --- Read More:

Peale’s greatest coup was the excavation and assembly of the skeleton of two prehistoric mastodons. At eighty-one he painted a fine full length picture of himself lifting a curtain to disclose the wonders of his museum, mastodons and all.


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