Four Days in Philly

Philadelphia skyline

In another foray into the drafts folder, I decided it was time to finally post about my trip to Philadelphia just before Christmas. Better late than never, hmm? It was a business trip, as most of my travelling is at the moment, and it was a welcome opportunity to broaden my American horizons beyond New York and Disney World in Florida. Fortunately I enjoyed splendid weather during my stay: very mild, with gorgeous sunshine, which allowed for a lot of walking on the days when I didn’t have meetings. Philadelphia is not the most pedestrian-friendly place in the world, with its main sights rather scattered across the town, but I thought I’d share just a few of the things that really made an impression.

Penn Museum · The Barnes Foundation · Philadelphia Museum of Art · Other


Before I start on the larger sights, an honourable mention should go to the Genghis Khan exhibition at the Franklin Institute. The show was one of those touring exhibitions which feels glossy rather than academically rigorous, but it nevertheless made a persuasive case in favour of the man who laid the foundation of the largest land empire ever known. My inner child was thrilled by the reconstructions of Mongol armour, a yurt and a form of ballista, but the exhibit that sticks in my mind is the cast of a diplomatic passport issued to one of Kublai Khan’s ambassadors in around 1240. The inscribed disc offers a very simple message: ‘I am the emissary of the Khan. If you defy me, you die.’ Politics were more straightforward in those days.

Beyond the temporary exhibition, the Franklin Institute also features some fun interactive science displays. Here I further indulged my inner child: I played with cogs and gears in the engineering section; I stood on a scale which, calculating the precise quantity of blood in my body, filled a plastic tube with the same quantity of blood-red water; and, thanks to being rather small, I climbed through a giant model of a heart that’s clearly intended for actual children. The visit was a pleasant diversion on a day when little else was open, but the whole place feels ever so slightly tired and in need of a sympathetic revamp.

Another honourable mention goes to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which has a rather wonderful little museum devoted to works by current and past fellows, as well as great painters from Philadelphia’s past. Benjamin West, predictably, makes an appearance. Highlights for me included Robert W. Vonnoh’s 1888 painting of one of his friends, whose sharp and intelligent face gazes out at us, all slightly elongated planes and angles; Margaret Foster Richardson’s excellent Motion Picture of 1912, which is a vivacious but thoroughly honest self-portrait, sparking with character; David Martin’s 1767 Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, which shows one of Philadelphia’s most cherished personalities musing over a book; and William Wetmore Story’s 1873 marble statue of Semiramis, in which the queen lounges regally on a couch, her narrowed eyes suggesting the whirl of strategic thought within.



The Penn Museum lies some way out from the rest of the museums, requiring a half-hour trek down the west bank of the Schuykill River, but it’s a good little collection and worth a visit if you have the time. I’ve been somewhat spoiled by archaeological museums recently, and Penn is certainly no Berlin, but the collection here is rather fine for a university museum. The Egyptian collections are especially memorable, since they include the Museum’s most celebrated exhibit: the largest Egyptian sphinx in the Western hemisphere, which is rather imposing even if its face has been largely worn away by desert winds. There is also a very interesting display on the history of Akenhaten’s foundation at Amarna, which is something I mean to read more about some day soon.

Upstairs there is another important collection of archaeological finds, this time from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. The excavations at Ur were carried out jointly by Penn and by the British Museum, and headed up by Sir Leonard Woolley (whose young assistant Max Mallowan would later marry Agatha Christie). The artefacts were divided between the two museums and, having spent many happy hours browsing around the BM’s Ur cases, I was glad to finally see some of the complementary material. Penn have another version of the BM’s celebrated Ram in the Thicket sculpture, as well as some stunning jewellery. The most striking thing in the room is the reconstructed headdress and beaded mantle of Queen Puabi, whose undisturbed tomb was the richest of those uncovered at the site.

But there is plenty more to see at Penn. There are collections of Greek, Roman, Etruscan and North and South American material, as well as an impressive domed Chinese hall, where to my delight I found some glorious colour-glazed Tang horses and even some Tang camels.



Although Impressionism and Post-Impressionism aren’t my favourite artistic periods, I was absolutely bowled over by this collection founded in 1922 by Dr Albert Barnes. I shouldn’t have been surprised: on hearing I was going to Philadelphia, the one thing on everyone’s lips was the Barnes. It isn’t just the quality of the collection that makes this such a fine place to visit, although there are Picassos, Rousseaus, Monets and a host of slightly disturbing Soutines. Moreover, I’m sure I haven’t ever seen such an overwhelming concentration of Renoir and Cezanne in one place before. I’m not Renoir’s biggest fan, particularly towards the end of his career when his women start to become amorphous, sugary, overly pink and to lose the bones in their arms, which curve in a most disturbing fashion. But even I had to admit that there were some stunning examples of his earlier work here, from the 1870s in particular.

In Avant le bain (Before the Bath), from around 1875, the model has an individuality and self-consciousness that Renoir’s later women lack; there’s also a dark fuzz of hair in her armpits, which suggests a gently subversive challenge to the hairless perfection of the female nude in art. I also liked La sortie du conservatoire (Leaving the Conservatory) from a year or two later, bathed in cool tones of blue and green. The picture is interesting for its psychology: two vivacious young women chat with a couple of admirers, who initially seem confident, but when you look at the painting a while longer, you see that the foreground man is in the middle of movement – towards the girls, or away from them? – while his half-hidden companion puts his hand on his shoulder, urging him forward or preventing his retreat. Unfortunately the artist’s portrait of his own family, from 1896, is rather less successful; and for all its sumptuous colour, his Bathers from around 1918 sees us in full amorphous pink territory. Arranged in chronological order, the images above should give you a good idea of his changing style.

Other favourites included a wonderful Blue Period Picasso, The Ascetic of 1903, which is a simple but very moving portrait of an emaciated old man sitting before an empty plate, facing his fate with calm and dignity. There is something El-Greco-like about the shadows and planes of his face. I was also delighted to see an unexpected favourite here: Toulouse-Lautrec’s A Montrouge, showing a figure in a loose white shirt with dishevelled red hair, glancing almost pugnaciously off to the side at someone we, the viewer, can’t see. This, as so often with Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, is a portrait of a prostitute: Rosa La Rouge, whose vibrant dyed red hair caught the artist’s attention (he seems to have had something of a penchant for redheads, if his fascination with Marcelle Lender is anything to go by). I’ve always loved the painting, because it suggests the hard, gritty everyday existence that these women actually had to survive, instead of falling for their evening glitz and glamour. Rosa looks fully able to take care of herself: look at the set of that jaw…

There are a few pictures by that dreamy, unsettling painter Henri Rousseau, who seems to dredge up images from folktales and nightmares, and I was especially struck by his Mauvaise Surprise (An unpleasant surprise), where nothing is quite as it seems. A nude woman stands with her eyes and hands raised in appeal to heaven, but what exactly does she fear? Is it the bear or, as implied by his reverent pose at her feet, is he an admirer rather than a threat? What about the hunter at left, whose rifle is pointed at the bear? Perhaps, in ‘freeing’ this nubile beauty from the protection of her wild beast, he plans to take advantage of her? It’s a picture that demands a story to be made of it. As a final choice, I can’t help but mention one of the Foundation’s highlights: Vincent Van Gogh’s famous portrait of his postman, Joseph-Étienne Roulin. Roulin’s capacious beard is echoed in the floral swirls and decorations of the background, and his squared-on pose gives him a dignity and confidence that’s only emphasised by the smart navy of his uniform. I’m always suspicious of famous pictures, which I fear won’t hold up in the flesh, but this was genuinely a superb painting. Moreover, it would form useful context for my visit to the Museum of Art, where I found more Van Gogh portraits of Roulin’s family.

Part of the Barnes Foundation’s charm is that objects are laid out by aesthetic quality, so you’ll often find unusual bedfellows in a room: Barnes also collected old master paintings, tribal art, antiquities and, rather strikingly, pieces of ironwork. These have been mounted on the walls, so that door-plates and hinges become attractive arabesques of ornate metal rather than functional objects. It’s an appealing labyrinth of colour and form, and it brought home to me – more powerfully than any other museum ever has – the crucial role of American collectors in encouraging and supporting the Impressionist movement. We have nothing, really, to equal this in the UK and, even though my heart remains with the old masters, I came out weak and dazzled with delight.



The Museum of Art is is the biggest cultural sight in Philadelphia, with collections stretching from early medieval Italian painting to baffling contemporary art. It isn’t just painting, though: there are a few rooms of arms and armour, architectural elements such as the vast arched doorway of a medieval cathedral, several installations of complete panelled rooms from the 17th and 18th centuries, and a tranquil medieval courtyard (reconstructed indoors) where a tiled cloister surrounds a gently bubbling fountain.

Its greatest strength is in Impressionist and Modern art, and once more late Renoir makes his customary pink, voluptuous appearance, but I was pleased to find another charming early work by the artist, which was much more to my taste. The 1875 Portrait of Mademoiselle Legrand appealed both for its intimacy and the apparent spontaneity of the girl’s glance back over her shoulder. There’s much more sense of self here than there is in Renoir’s later portraits. There are Van Goghs, Mancinis and a charming group portrait by Mary Cassatt, but I was especially taken by another Impressionist great: Manet, whose Bon Bock was painted in 1873 but brims over with Golden-Age Dutch attitude. The sitter, who isn’t identified, sits comfortably with his glass of beer and his pipe, with a face full of ruddy good humour as if he’s just strolled out of a picture from Frans Hals. To my own surprise, I also rather liked Joan Mirò’s early painting  L’Ornière (The Rut) from 1918, which I suppose is due to my better understand of his work in the aftermath of the Tate’s exhibition. Here the landscape is still relatively naturalistic, though ornamented with dots and swirls: only the colours and the naivete of the perspective hint at the artist’s later more abstract work.

The section of American artists is, unsurprisingly, very good and Thomas Eakins comes across very strongly, with a large number of impressive works. The most imposing are his two portraits of surgeons in action in operating theatres, surrounded by acolytes, which hang opposite one another, vivid and almost life-size. But there is also a small but notable collection of old masters upstairs, among which several pictures stood out for me. I’m always on the lookout for Vouet, and here there were a pair of evangelists – Luke and John – from the early 1620s. John, with dusty dark curls, deep green tunic and crimson mantle, glances sharply out of the picture to the left, as if sizing up a newcomer. The physical type, as well as the aesthetic spirit, is a powerful testament to Caravaggio’s influence on the youthful Vouet. Here too was Theodor Rombout’s Lute Player from around 1620, in which the musician grimaces as he tunes up his instrument. At this date, painters often used music as a convenient shorthand for love, but it looks as if our lutenist – frowning, and meeting our gaze with a lugubrious expression – is still a long way from finding romantic harmony. Then there’s the portrait of a man by Antonello da Messina, whose portraits are always rewarding, not just for their chromatic simplicity, but also for the intensity of the sitters’ gazes. This man gazes out calmly, with just a touch of humour, his skin glowing against the dark background and his black clothes, and his features enlivened with an almost conspiratorial expression.

Finally, since I can’t mention everything there was the Goltzius. I’ve spoken before of my admiration for his work, and the Museum possesses one of his masterpieces: the splendid allegory called Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus would Freeze. Based on the old adage that love quickly withers without the necessities of life, it shows Venus warmed by her son Cupid’s torch and nourished by the fruit and grapes offered to her by two satyrs. Both sensuous and refined, it’s on the scale of a painting, but is actually a drawing, rendered in ink with touches of oil paint to add highlights and flashes of colour on lips and cheeks. It’s always been acknowledged as one of the artist’s greatest works and its history has taken it through the hands of some of the greatest royal collectors in Europe: the eccentric Rudolf II of Prague; Christina of Sweden; and Charles I of England, before it came to rest here in Philadelphia.

This will have to serve as a brief introduction to the Museum but suffice it to say that, no matter what period interests you, from medieval to modern, there’ll be something to catch your eye. The people of Philadelphia are lucky indeed to have this on their doorsteps.


I stayed at the Windsor Suites just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which was arranged by my American colleagues and which proved to be very well placed both for the museums on the Parkway and for the other sights in the old town, none of which were more than half an hour’s walk away. With large bedrooms, kitchenettes and even a luggage or dressing room, the suites make quite an impression if you’re used to the more modest scale of European city hotel rooms: my suite was larger than my flat in London. There’s apparently a gym on site and a swimming pool on the roof, which I’d almost have been tempted to use had it been a bit warmer. There are a couple of restaurants on the Parkway itself but I ventured further afield, once to The Happy Rooster with its convivial pub-like atmosphere and extremely good food (the pork belly was the perfect antidote to an eight-hour flight and five-hour time difference), and once to Serafina near Rittenhouse Square: a slightly less revelatory Italian, but one which offered very good wines, tasty calamari and some lovely ravioli. Plus it’s within crawling distance of Barnes & Noble on the square, which is open until 10pm.

Speaking of books, I should also mention Book Corner, run by the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is conveniently placed just opposite the entrance to the Barnes Foundation. Initially this second-hand bookshop looks deceptively small, but the front room gives onto two very large further rooms covering all the genres you could possibly desire. I have a bit of a weakness for American editions (it’s something about the tactile quality of the covers), so I could easily have gone completely mad in here, but I considered myself very restrained in buying only three books. There are also two shop cats, one of which made a slight attempt to savage my hand when I went to stroke it, but never mind. They obviously take their responsibility as guardians very seriously.

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