U.S. Art

The opening of the National Constitution Center on Arch Street has given rise to all sorts of displays of patriotic fervor, particularly in the art world, where historical archives don’t have much of a spotlight. It’s sort of like never being a hero in your own household or never being a true gentleman to your valet.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts weighed in with a select installation of Washington images and Washingtonia in the form of paintings, porcelain and publications. Now the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents "American Viewpoints," a potpourri of documents, paintings, prints and paintings from the late 18th and 19th centuries installed in the Director’s Corridor now through July 27.

The museum also is providing a new children’s audio tour of the American galleries "introducing American paintings, furniture, sculpture and decorative arts in a kid-friendly fashion with fun sound effects, wacky facts and dynamic voices."

Much of the material in the show is provided by the Dietrich American Foundation or is the personal property of H. Richard Dietrich Jr. Taken all together, there is probably no finer assemblage of artistic and social artifacts connected with the history of the United States.

The centerpieces of the show are "George Washington’s own bound, signed and annotated copy of the official Acts of the First Congress, containing the full texts of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other key legislation," and "Washington’s handwritten letter to the Philadelphia Common Council addressing his retirement from the presidency," along with two lifetime portraits of Washington. The bound volume also shows Washington doing his homework, as each section of the Constitution dealing with the presidency has been bracketed and, in four cases, annotated.

One certain concept that runs through all such exhibitions is that Americans were quick to celebrate the enormous success of the Revolution and the ensuing establishment of a democratic republic. The second certainty is that however such an event could be commemorated, it could also be commercialized.

Thus Philadelphia, as both the capital city and a city of artists, produced in images and words, "maps, books, engravings, drawings and paintings" that celebrated the Republic and its founders and that were also — not coincidentally — appropriate for purchase and home display.

An engraving by an unknown artist depicts George as general and commander. It was printed with celebratory prose in French and German, and was said to have been passed out to the soldiers at Valley Forge by Baron Von Steuben, much as today’s military flock around George W. Bush for a digital souvenir snapshot.

Such was the veneration of Washington that one of the pieces on display comes close to worship. It is a 1788 miniature portrait of Washington by James Peale (younger brother of Charles Willson Peale) enclosed in a case with engraved vignettes of Mount Vernon and Washington about to cross the Delaware. The back of the case contains a lock of Washington’s hair as if it were a relic of an ancient saint.

The Peale family almost made an industry out of Washington, painting him and then copying the original. In one example from the show, Charles Peale Polk, a nephew of Charles Willson Peale, copied his uncle’s work several times, but scholars say the one in this show resembles the original at the academy so much that it’s possible uncle and nephew did the copying jointly.

Many of the pieces in the show are by unknown or unidentified artists, which make them almost more authentic. Many, such as the Peales and Edward Hicks, are also familiar to any Philadelphia art lover.

Finally, anticipating Philadelphians’ love of an ostentatious parade, there are two documents detailing a "Grand Federal Procession" that came close to a Mummers New Year’s Day parade. The order of march for 88 units with more than 5,000 participants included all trades, professions and associations in the city. According to the museum notes, "most spectacular, however, was the ‘Grand Federal Edifice’ — a circular temple of 13 columns, drawn by 10 white horses — and ‘Federal Ship Union,’ a 33-foot-long model that was later moored in front of the State House."

The ship was said to have been completed in four days, but was still "a masterpiece of elegant workmanship, perfectly proportioned and complete throughout." It carried a crew of 25 and 20 cannons. There are plenty of clubs in South Philly that might be interested in such a model.

American Viewpoints
Through July 27
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street
Museum admission: $10 general; $7 seniors, students and ages 5-18; pay what you wish on Sundays.