Art That Defines Philadelphia

  • Art
  • February 24, 2020

The spirit of the city that launched a new nation also fostered groundbreaking art and artists.

Philadelphia, a city rich in American history, was a melting pot of cultures and collaboration from its early days of religious tolerance in William Penn’s colony to the time of the American Revolution as America’s capital. Many immigrants were attracted to this creative center of industry, education, medicine and art, which was dubbed the “Athens of America.” Not only was the city’s name derived from Greek for “brotherly love,” but Philadelphia, like ancient Athens, was inspiring a young country toward progress and innovation. Philadelphia’s arts and culture institutions played a central role in the early days of the new republic and its history continues to inspire new generations of artists.

Freedom of expression

Penn's Treaty with the Indians by Benjamin West, 1771-72, one of the artist's most famous works, was commissioned by Penn's son Thomas and depicts Philadelphia's founder meeting with members of the Lenni Lenape tribe along the Delaware River. The painting is on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

As hub of intellectual thought in colonial Philadelphia, the city’s institutions and societies were the first to provide access to literature and to encourage scientific innovation and artistic expression. Philadelphia became a center of American painting and portrait art. Pennsylvania-born Quaker, Benjamin West painted Philadelphia’s social and political leaders and large-scale historical scenes. He became the first American artist to be internationally recognized.

West moved to England in 1763 and was instrumental in founding the Royal Academy and was appointed historical painter to the court of King George III, becoming known as the “American Raphael.” His style attracted generations of American artists to study with West in England and to bring back his ideas and techniques to Philadelphia. Artists included Gilbert Stuart, Ralph Earl, John Trumbull, Thomas Sully and Charles Willson Peale.

The first art museum and art school in the nation

George Washington (The Lansdowne Portrait) 1796, by Gilbert Stuart, hangs in the illustrious halls of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), the first art museum and art school in the United States. Stuart's paintings of the first president formed iconic images of Washington, including the Athenaeum Portrait, which was used as the image on the U.S. dollar bill. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Charles Willson Peale studied with Benjamin West in England and became a key figure in Philadelphia’s art world as a painter, museum founder, and patriarch of a family of artists. With the desire to make art accessible, he founded the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1805. PAFA would become the inextricable link of many cultural institutions and artist societies that would establish Philadelphia as a center for art.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875. The painting was a gift of the Alumni Association to Jefferson Medical College in 1878 and purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007 with the generous support of more than 3,400 donors. The iconic painting is shared by both museums and is currently on display at PAFA and will return in 2020 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, PAFA played a central role in the generation of painters who made their mark on the art world in the United States and in Europe such as Mary Cassatt and Thomas Eakins. One of the finest realist painters of his time, Eakins defied the artistic norms of his time and had a profound influence on the generations of artists that came after him, many who went on to be renowned artists as well.

Eakins’ Legacy

Nicodemus by Henry O. Tanner, 1899, on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The son of a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Tanner's religious convictions infused many of his pieces. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was inspired by Thomas Eakins’ progressive views and ideas, becoming his favorite student. Tanner was the first African American artist to gain an international reputation, particularly for his religious paintings including The Annunciation, his first work to be purchased by an American museum.

Another protégé of Eakins was realist painter Thomas Anshutz, whose students at PAFA created the Ashcan School. These “Philadelphia Four,” John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn and William Glackens, were influenced by Robert Henri, who taught at the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia, founded in 1848 by Sarah Worthington Peter as the first and only visual arts college for women in the United States (now called Moore College of Art and Design).

Challenging the art establishment

Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

One of the “Philadelphia Four,” William Glackens, was a friend of Philadelphia art collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, and worked with him to bring modern European art to Philadelphia. Barnes provided a new way to experience art. He grouped his collection into “wall ensembles” by symmetry or qualities of the pieces rather than by artist and genre. He was one of the first collectors to showcase African art along with the Impressionist and modern pieces, to show how African art influenced artists, such as Picasso. The Barnes Foundation has become one of the finest private collections in the world – 181 pieces by Renoir (the world’s largest holding), 69 by Cézanne, and critical works by Matisse, Modigli­ani, Van Gogh, and other renowned artists.

The Brandywine School

N.C. Wyeth lived a short distance from Philadelphia in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where he built a home and studio overlooking the valley that would also be an inspiration to his family of painters. The property, owned by the Brandywine River Museum of Art, is a National Historic Landmark and guided tours are available. Photo courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum of Art.

Artist Howard Pyle, one of the leading illustrators in the United States, created a style of illustration and an artist colony just outside of Philadelphia. The Brandywine School published magazines, romances and adventure novels in the early 20th century. Artists who emerged out of this school included Violet Oakley, the first American woman to receive a public mural commission. The most comprehensive collection of her work can be seen at Woodmere Art Museum, dedicated to the art and artists of Philadelphia. Additional artists from Pyle’s school included Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. Rooted in realism, the Wyeth family, including N.C.’s son Andrew, became an artistic dynasty. The Brandywine River Museum of Art is renowned for its holdings of the Wyeth family of artists, as well as a focus on the artists of the Brandywine.

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the Philadelphia 201 Hotel by Billano Photo.

A grand boulevard was built to add to Philadelphia’s artistic beauty. Commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art), the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was designed to be lined with flags of countries from around the world, representing the individual communities within Philadelphia. Most of Philadelphia’s premier cultural institutions are set on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with public sculptures lining the boulevard, including the Swann Fountain in the center at Logan Square, by sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder, whose father, Alexander Milne Calder, was known for the sculpture of William Penn on top of Philadelphia’s City Hall, the world’s largest statue atop a public building. The architectural jewel, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was placed majestically on the hill at the end of the parkway.

Making art accessible and possible

LOVE statue HISTORY. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

In 1872, Philadelphia became the first U.S. city to establish a private nonprofit citizen’s organization “to increase the appreciation and love of art in our midst.” This commitment has led to thousands of sculptures and murals throughout the city.

Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Walk through Philadelphia to see incredible architecture, sculptures and community-based public art in the form of murals and mosaics, like the ornate creations of Isaiah Zagar, and street art that appears throughout the city. Today, a new generation of artists take advantage of the accessibility and collaborative spirit that exists in Philadelphia. Art galleries, collectives, co-ops and incubators have taken up space throughout the city thanks to its affordability and inclusive atmosphere. Several foundations in Philadelphia play an important role in fostering and supporting arts organizations, encouraging artists to be experimental and socially engaged.

Register & Save

Register with DiscoverPHL.com for free to save your favorites for future visits

View My List

See what you've added to "Favorites"