Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Philadelphia Art Museum - Site of the Iconic Rocky Steps and a House for Beautiful Art

I recently made a very enjoyable trip to Philadelphia, which included an afternoon at the Philadelphia Art Museum. This is the building featured in the film Rocky, in which the title character played by Sylvester Stallone runs up the steps as part of his grueling training routine. In this clip, he runs through the city neighborhoods and, as a metaphor for the inspiring narrative of an against-the-odds rise from poverty to success (mirrored in the life of Stallone himself), he finishes on the top of the steps of the beautiful building, the Art Museum, that overlooks the whole city. Stories such as this can play two ways. On the one hand, it can be viewed as the triumph of human effort against the odds. When, however, this rise is identified with a narrative of good triumphing over evil, as is the case with Rocky, a simple narrative well told transcends one of material gain, and becomes a type for the attainment of the ultimate good that we yearn for. This is part of what gives such stories the power to connect with us; the imagery would not have worked in the film if the site of the summit had not been grand, beautiful, and in many ways a symbol of the idealized city.

The building was completed in 1928 in a neo-classical (I would have said Palladian) style. It has classical columns and portico, and windows in harmonious proportion. Each story is a different size in accordance with principles of visual harmony. The two architects generally credited with its design are from the two local firms that collaborated on the work, Howell Lewis Shay for the building’s plan and massing, and Julian Abele for the detail work and perspective drawings. Abele, incidentally was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture, in 1902. 

The stone is a beautiful honey-colored dolomite, quarried in Minnesota. It is common nowadays, for those who wish to retrieve traditional values in building to insist that only local stone will work. I have never understood this argument. As far as I am aware, builders of grand buildings have always used the most beautiful and appropriate materials they could afford, as suited to the purpose of the building. If this meant importing marble from a distance, so be it. Certainly, it is not the case that the art museum used local stone.

I can’t let the moment pass without some reference to the art collection inside the building. Here are two examples that caught my eye. The first is a diptych by the 15th century Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden, a Crucifixion in the high Gothic style.
And then a landscape painting of the 19th-century by a Norwegian artist whom I had never heard of before, Fritz Thaulow.

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