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June 7th, 1999
American Art

Philadelphia's preeminent place in American history and artistic production is reflected in the Museum's outstanding collections of American art. Great early American paintings, such as Charles Willson Peale's famous eye-fooling portrait of his sons, Staircase Group (1795), and John Singleton Copley's masterful double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (1773), are on view alongside elaborately decorated, "high-style" 18th- and 19th-century Philadelphia furniture and silver. Among these homegrown treasures: a rare, mirrored "Rococo"-inspired Secretary Bookcase (c. 1755-60), Charles Le Roux's ornate, undulating silver Sauceboats (c. 1725-35), and an elaborate, painted Pair of Urns (c. 1830) by the Tucker porcelain factory. Rural arts range from Edward Hicks' depiction of Noah's Ark (1846) to Pennsylvania German painted chests and redware ceramics and a fully (and, of course, simply) furnished Shaker interior.

Masterpieces of the late 19th century--including the largest and most significant group of works by the great Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), A Woman and Girl Driving (1881) by the expatriate Impressionist Mary Cassatt, Henry Ossawa Tanner's Annunciation (1898) and Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1897), and four of Winslow Homer's celebrated depictions of life in the American wilderness--are complemented by spectacular examples of the era's exuberant decorative arts. These Victorian-era highlights include a suite of "art furniture" for the bedroom (c. 1880-5) by Herter brothers and Frank Furness' boldly architectural Desk and Chair (1875).

In 1981, the Women's Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art established a fund for the purchase of distinguished contemporary American crafts that will extend the Museum's historically strong collections of decorative arts into the 21st century. Among many highlights are Rudolf Staffel's luminescent porcelain Light Gatherer (1981); Private Affair II (1986), a ten-foot high, red fiber cascade by Claire Zeisler; Toshiko Takaezu's monumental glazed stoneware vessel, Form (1990); Judy Kensley McKie's sleek bronze Jaguar Bench (1992); A Snake Without a Head is Just A Rope (1994), a sinuous and enigmatic earthenware work by Syd Carpenter; and Judith Schaechter's I've Trampled a Million Pretty Flowers (1995), an innovative application of traditional stained-glass technique. A dramatic centerpiece of the American Wing is the massive oak Fireplace and Doorway (1936-7) by Wharton Esherick, a pioneer of the contemporary craft movement.

The Department of American Art has explored the rich and diverse artistic legacy of the United States in a series of distinguished exhibitions, including Federal Philadelphia, 1785-1825: The Athens of the Western World (1987), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1991), and The Peale Family (1996-7). Upcoming projects include complementary studies of The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks and Worldly Goods: The Arts of Early Pennsylvania, 1680-1758 (October 10, 1999-January 2, 2000), and a millennial look at Thomas Eakins in 2001.

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