Perhaps Philadelphia’s greatest landmark (no mean feat in a city with so many), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) entered the consciousness of non-art lovers everywhere with its starring role as a backdrop to the "Rocky" movies. While the neo-classical hulk at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the views it affords south to the skyscrapers of Center City and west over the Schuykill are justly iconic, even greater beauty is located inside the museum itself.
Stepping inside, you’re greeted by a vast hall bisected by a forbidding staircase topped by a sculpture of Diana by August Saint-Gaudens. If the admittedly arduous task of following in Rocky Balboa’s footsteps has left you more breathless than the attractive main hall has, turn right in order to explore the museum’s superb collection of late nineteenth century and modern art, which fills the ground floor’s east wing. The French Impressionists are well represented here, as is their great intellectual heir Paul Cezanne, who was honored here in 1996 (the ninetieth anniversary of his death) with the greatest retrospective of his works since the 1930s. Moving from the beautiful to the surreal, the PMA boasts an entire room designed by Marcel Duchamps and filled with his works, including "The Large Glass: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even."
As the birthplace of Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Eakins, and the home of America’s oldest art school, Philadelphia was an important center for American art for over a century before the PMA’s foundation in 1877. Their work, as well as that of the Lithuanian-born sculptor Jacques Lipschitz, features prominently in the superb collection of American art that encompasses much of the ground floor’s west wing, and is surpassed only by the National Gallery in Washington. A complementary collection of applied art from around Pennsylvania including by the so-called "Pennsylvania Dutch" (here correctly described as "Pennsylvania Germans") rounds out this wing. This is also where the museum’s renowned temporary exhibitions (the most recent covered Salvador Dali) are displayed.
If the PMA stopped here (and you might well wish to) it would be an outstanding museum, but it’s the collections of East Asian, South Asian, Medieval, and Islamic art in the upstairs portion of the west wing that really set it apart in my mind. Few other museums offers as harmonious (or historically motivated) a presentation of the artistic dialogue between multiple cultures and none that I am aware of has so many rooms that are intended as faithful recreations of everything from Venetian palazzi to Indian temples. The finest, however, are the Moorish courtyard and recreated Japanese tea-house, which interestingly seem to be among the museum’s less visited attractions. I find them wonderful places to sit and think. While interesting, the comprehensive collections of armor and European art are probably the least compelling portions of the museum, solely because its other three quarters are so outstanding.
The PMA is essential to any visit to Philadelphia!
See the PMA’s comprehensive website for more information.