The New Early American Art Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Investigating and Interpreting Art Objects' "Original Effects"

October 2021

After a two-year hiatus due to the Covid 19 pandemic, the Mellon-funded Penn/PMA object study workshops resumed in fall 2021 with a session focused on the newly installed Early American Art galleries at the PMA. A morning meeting was devoted to background presentations via Zoom followed by afternoon in-person discussions in the galleries.

Kathleen Foster, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr., Senior Curator of American Art, and Mark Tucker, the Neubauer Family Director of Conservation, led a discussion of Charles Willson Peale’s Staircase Group, recently restored by Lucia Bay, The Joan and John Thalheimer Associate Conservator of Paintings. The dual aspects of this painting—simultaneously portrait and trompe l’oeil deception—and thorough research into the context of its original presentation guided the conservation project. Complex decisions involved in this process were described by the presenters, which brought subtle features of the painting into focus.

The group then moved around the corner in the same gallery to examine a suite of elaborate, classically inspired furniture designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe for the home of William Waln, a prominent Philadelphia merchant, in 1805-1808. Alexandra Kirtley, The Montgomery-Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts, and Peggy Olley, Conservator of Furniture and Woodwork, explained the extensive research and object examination that enabled them to discover original elements of the design that had been covered over or lost in subsequent revisions.

Both discussions highlighted the efforts of the conservators and curators to recover as much as possible the original appearance of works that had changed over time, but just as fundamentally to develop and present an expanded, more nuanced understanding of the early visual and sociocultural context that gave rise to the work and in which it was experienced. The process on which this interpretation and application of evidence rested—the collaborative gathering of knowledge about milieu and historical and technical information, and the analysis of points of concordance or lack of it—was well demonstrated by both the Staircase Group and the Waln furniture projects. That process was the critical basis for conceptual and practical decisions about what aspects of these objects’ early appearances could and could not justifiably be recovered.

First-year and second-year students in Penn’s History of Art Graduate Group participated in the event. Michael Leja represented Penn’s faculty on the organization and presentation team, and Nicole Cook, PMA Coordinator for Academic Partnerships, played a vital role in framing and executing the workshop.